What makes a film deserving of inclusion on a “best of the year” list? Some might argue that “important” films should populate such lists—films with the most timely commentary on our cultural moment. Others prioritize films with the best acting or cutting-edge technical achievement. These are valid criteria, but for me the “best” movies are simply the ones that stick with me the most; the ones I’ll return to; the ones I’m eager to watch and talk about with friends. Usually these are the films I also find most beautiful or jarring in their artistry—more timeless than timely in their explorations of humanity, more curious than “relevant.”
For me the best movies are simply the ones that stick with me the most; the ones I’ll return to; the ones I’m eager to watch and talk about with friends.
There are some excellent films in 2019 that featured stellar acting, but didn’t make my top 10 because I doubt I’ll ever watch them again (e.g., Marriage Story, Honey Boy, Diane). The movies ranked highest on my list are the ones I either have already watched twice or the ones I’m eager to watch again. They are movies I suspect will pass the test of time.
I hope you’ll find some gems in this list that affect you as they did me. As always, viewers should use discretion in terms of content—several films on my list are rated R for language, violence, or drug use. Some of them (For Sama, A Hidden Life, and Waves particularly) are quite emotionally bruising—by no means “feel good” entertainment. Still, they are beautiful and true, and far more worthwhile than most of what you could spend your time and money watching.
Here are my 10 favorites, 15 honorable mentions, and 10 excellent documentaries released in 2019.
1. A Hidden Life
Against all odds, the once-reclusive filmmaker Terrence Malick became remarkably prolific in the last decade, such that one recent article declared the 2010s “the decade of Terrence Malick.” Of the five narrative films the Christian filmmaker released in this decade, the first (2011’s The Tree of Life) and the last (this year’s A Hidden Life) are the best. These two films are arguably two of the best films about faith ever made. The true story of a Christian who understood the cost of discipleship in World War II—and was martyred because of it—A Hidden Life is not an easy film. But it is remarkably rewarding. It’s a film every Christian should see—one of the most honest, harrowing, and beautiful explorations of faith I’ve ever seen. Read TGC’s review here. Now in theaters. Rated PG-13.
2. The Irishman
People complain that Martin Scorsese’s three-and-half-hour gangster epic is too long; the propulsive plot ends about 30 minutes before the film does. But that slow-burn final half-hour, which may feel painful to viewers conditioned to quickly move on to the “watch next” thing, is more than just a coda. It’s the point of the film. However “cool” De Niro’s gangster character may seem for most of the film, in the end he’s a sad, frail man in a nursing home. Scorsese wants us to feel the crushing weight of the banal, the existential ache of mortality, and the loneliness of an unrepentant life. Fortune and glory quickly fade, and death comes for us all. What are we doing to prepare for that day? Read TGC’s review. Watch on Netflix. Rated R.
3. Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood
Every Quentin Tarantino movie is a love letter to Hollywood, but his latest is perhaps the most lovely and soft-hearted (I daresay even sweet) cinematic homage he’s ever made. Drenched in nostalgia but propelled by a present longing for justice—the 1969-set film powerfully captures the potential of movies to channel our ache for divine intervention and “reverse the curse” renewal. Never has a patented “explosively violent” Tarantino movie climax felt so pure—rather than exploitative. As I wrote in my TGC review, in celebrating cinema’s “eternity-glimpsing” power, the film “stokes the fires of our desire for a better ending.” Watch on Amazon. Rated R.
4. For Sama
This documentary broke me. Incredibly hard to watch, Waad al-Kateab’s heartrending cinematic love letter to her daughter gives us an unflinching look at the human cost of the Syrian war. Set in the besieged and crumbling ancient city of Aleppo, For Sama is requisite viewing at a time when, tragically, “far off” conflicts like this barely register on our headline-saturated radars. Films like this demonstrate the power of movies to expose and document what we dare not ignore. There are harrowing images from For Sama I don’t know that I’ll ever get out of my heart. Still, it’s a beautiful and ultimately hopeful film—one every Christian should see. Watch for free on YouTube. Unrated.
This was one of the most immersive filmgoing experiences I had in 2019. Unfolding in (what appears to be) one continuous, two-hour shot, Sam Mendes’s World War I epic takes the audience into the horrors of the Great War: rat-infested trenches, shell craters full of decomposing bodies, the harrowing desolation of No Man’s Land. It’s a visceral experience that puts you right there with the film’s protagonists as they embark, in real time, on a crucial but likely suicidal mission. Featuring breathtaking cinematography from the great Roger Deakins, 1917 is a technical masterpiece. Its story is simple but compelling—displaying the radical courage of costly obedience and the beauty of sacrificing for a cause bigger than yourself. In select theaters now; opens nationwide January 10. Rated R.
Great films are unpredictable. They are wild rides, taking viewers on ups and downs, with ample twists and turns, like a thrilling rollercoaster. Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s rightly acclaimed new film offers literal ups and downs—it’s a film where the vertical class symbolism of “upstairs” and “downstairs” looms large. Like Knives Out, Parasite is an enjoyable blend of comedy, thrill, tragedy, mystery, and social commentary. Like Bong’s other films (including Okja, Snowpiercer, and The Host), Parasite is the epitome of smart-but-fun cinema. The filmmaking excellence means you’re glued to your seat while watching. The thoughtfulness means you’ll think about it long after you leave the theater. In theaters now. Rated R.
7. 63 Up
I wept at several moments watching this poignant documentary—the latest installment in the groundbreaking Up series from British filmmaker Michael Apted (Amazing Grace). 63 Up is the ninth film in this 56-year-old series, which has chronicled the lives of 14 British citizens since they were 7 years old. I started following the series in 2005 when 49 Up came out, and then went back to watch some of the earlier installments (42 Up, 35 Up, and so on). Roger Ebert once called the Up series “the noblest project in cinema history,” and he’s right. With each subsequent installment, Apted’s project becomes more powerful and significant—not only as a slice-of-life portrait of these specific lives (some will likely end before 70 Up releases in 2026, if it does), but also as a reflection of all our lives, and of time itself. In theaters now. Unrated.
8. Knives Out
I have loved every Rian Johnson film: Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Looper, even The Last Jedi. But his latest, Knives Out, is easily my favorite. Not only does Johnson nail the “whodunit?” intrigue of the murder-mystery genre, but he does it in a joyful manner that infectiously delights in every actor, prop, and costume. In a film full of unexpected twists and turns, perhaps the most surprising is how much Knives Out ultimately turns out to be about the moral contours of human nature. We’re all polite and peaceful until we start losing our power and inherited privileges. Then the knives come out and the ugly, shady self-preservation begins. Few recent films have better illustrated how vice is rooted in self-interest while virtue stems from selfless love. In theaters now. Rated PG-13.
No other 2019 film, with the exception of Malick’s A Hidden Life, makes better use of music than Trey Edward Shults’s Waves. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the 31-year-old Shults began the last decade as an intern-apprentice of Malick’s, working on films like Song to Song. Though Shults uses Animal Collective and Kanye while Malick uses Bach and Handel, the effect is the same—creating a visceral cinematic opera where music is a major character. The title of Waves could apply as much to sonic waves as it does to ocean waves, and life’s waves of alternating grief and hope. The film’s distinctly two-halved structure captures this well. What begins as perhaps the most depressing movie of 2019 gives way to one of the loveliest in its second half. But it is all of a beautiful piece, and that is Shults’s point: sorrow and joy illumine one another. In theaters now. Rated R.
10. Peanut Butter Falcon
I smiled more in this film than in any other this year (with the exception, maybe, of 63 Up). It’s like a much-better-quality and more honest Hallmark movie, full of joy and truth and little moments of happy catharsis. Here’s what I said in my TGC review: “I don’t know whether the filmmakers (Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz) are Christians, but Falcon feels like a model for what a quality faith-based film could look like. The 98-minute movie has a confident grasp of goodness, a beautifully compassionate and dignifying way of looking at its characters, and an infectious joy grounded in its observations about the dynamics of friendship and family—observations that led me to ponder God and praise him.” Watch on Amazon. Rated PG-13.
15 Honorable Mentions
A Beautiful Day in The Neighborhood, Ad Astra (TGC review), Arctic, Diane, The Farewell, Ford v. Ferrari, Honey Boy, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Little Women, Marriage Story (TGC review), Tolkien (TGC review), Transit, Us, Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, Yesterday (TGC review).
10 Excellent Documentaries
Here are 10 of the best documentaries released in 2019 (listed in alphabetical order), along with where you can watch them.
Part concert film, part time capsule, Amazing Grace is all glorious. A young Aretha Franklin gives a spellbinding concert of Gospel music in what is perhaps the most church-like movie experience of the year. Watch on Amazon or Hulu.
Ostensibly a slice-of-life look at the dynamics of global capitalism in the 2010s, American Factory turns out to be most interesting as a window into cross-cultural differences between East and West. Watch on Netflix.
Using stunning restored NASA footage of the launch and mission of Apollo 11, this immersive “direct cinema” documentary transports viewers back in time 50 years, allowing us to re-experience (or experience for the first time) the history-altering awe and transcendence of the Moon landing. Read TGC’s review. Watch on Amazon or Hulu.
The Biggest Little Farm
This is a feel-good documentary that doesn’t feel schmaltzy or manipulative. The story of one L.A. couple’s transformation of 200 acres of dead dirt into a thriving sustainable farm, it displays the wonder of God’s diverse-yet-harmonious creation in beautiful ways. Watch on Amazon or Hulu.
From the director of The Drop Box comes a gut-wrenching chronicle of what happened at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 17, 2015, and what happened two days later in a courtroom. It’s one of the most important faith-oriented films of the year. Read TGC’s review. Watch on Amazon.
The strange story of 2017’s Fyre Music Festival is the perfect fable for our fake news age. It’s a disaster story about the unreality of the social-media age, where what you see online is rarely what you get in reality. Read TGC’s review. Watch on Netflix.
At their best, documentaries are like travel, taking take viewers on journeys into unexplored places for which they have little paradigm, but which oddly hit close to home. Honeyland is one of those films. It’s a portrait of a Macedonian beekeeper whose fragile-but-beautiful life is riveting to behold. Watch on Amazon.
This year’s Social Animals, Jawline is a snapshot of the new phenomenon of teen social media influencer celebrities. Add this unsettling film to the (lengthy) list of pop culture artifacts chronicling the disturbing ways social media is reshaping all segments—but especially the younger segments—of society.
Jesus Is King
The IMAX short film that accompanied the release of Kanye West’s Jesus Is King album was thunderous, meditative, visceral liturgical art of the highest order. It’s a shame it showed so briefly, and on so few screens. Here’s hoping it will re-release at some point on IMAX screens.
One Child Nation
Chinese-born filmmaker Nanfu Wang returns to her home country to explore the devastating, infuriating ramifications of China’s one child policy (1979–2015). Though perhaps unintended, the eye-opening film also turns out to be an expose of the ugliness and inherent evil of abortion. Watch on Amazon.