Digital Trends Staff Picks: Our favorite movies of 2019

It’s that time of year again. The time when we gather around the hearth, take a moment for self-reflection, and reminisce … about all the badass movies we saw.

At Digital Trends we’re a lot like you: We love movies. We love discussing them, debating them, and especially, arguing about them. But if there’s one thing we like more than talking movies, it’s writing about them for the whole, wide world to see. And so, as you settle in for the holidays, please join us in celebrating the year of film that was. Here are our favorite movies of 2019.

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood

Rob Oster — Copy Chief

Quentin Tarantino is the best director working today who has never won an Oscar. Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood may be the film that rights that wrong (he should have won for Pulp Fiction a quarter-century ago).

Tarantino’s latest film is many things: a portrait of an industry and a city during a critical time of great change, a lamentation for a bygone era of Hollywood, and a revisionist spin on the events that hastened its demise.

A deliberately paced study of characters both fictional and real — including,  pivotally, actress and Charles Manson Family murder victim Sharon Tate — it’s Tarantino’s most mature film to date. The director draws career-best performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, and, most impressively, he marries this newfound restraint with the violent tendencies he’s renowned for to remarkably poignant effect.

Avengers: Endgame

Ryan Waniata — Home Theater and Entertainment Editor

One might call this pick the easy way out. The Marvel monstrosity lived on and on at the box office until it became the highest-grossing film of all time, while towing a cast of characters in the dozens — and that’s just on the superhero side. But putting aside all the bombast and CGI mayhem, Endgame is a wholly unique entity that rightly resides on our list.

What Disney producer extraordinaire Kevin Feige and tag-team blockbuster directors Anthony and Joe Russo did with their Avengers finale has never been done before, and may never be done again. Tying up over 20 films — each with its own quirks, flavors, and angles — from a timespan that extends longer than a decade is an incredible feat. To do so while also creating an emotional, powerful, and compelling spectacle on the screen is a triumph.

There’s no doubt there are moments to criticize and storylines to call into question. But what’s notable about what the Russos created with Endgame is that, unlike so many endings, it’s as close as it comes to a perfect finish. Endgame is a stuck landing. A well-tied bow on spiraling, drawn-out series. Perhaps above all, the film felt to me like a satisfying exhalation after a breath held in for 11 long years. No matter where Marvel, Disney, or others go from here, Endgame will hold a place as one of the best finales in a multi-film arc of its time — and likely well beyond it.

Booksmart

Jenifer Calle — Commerce Writer

Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut is a refreshing take on friendship, teenage experience, and vulnerability. But if you’re thinking it’s another coming of age movie, it’s far from that.

Booksmart is a comedy about two best friends embarking on a wild night before high school graduation. It follows Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), two unapologetically ambitious teens who are the definition of friend soulmates. Things take a twist when the star students come to the realization that sacrificing high school fun has come at a cost when most of the popular party kids at their school have also been accepted to the Ivy Leagues. 

Determined to make up for it in one night, what follows is yacht-diving, Uber mishaps, naked barbies, and so much more.

The chaos is captured from a progressive viewpoint without making too much of a show of it. In fact, there are no real walking stereotypes or over-the-top cheesy moments. The film is filled with contradictions and complexities of late adolescence, queer love, and the power of female friendship. The script is clever, funny, and each character is lovable in their own way.

The movie received high praise, and Feldstein received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance. Many people describe it as the female version of Superbad. I say it’s even better.

Midsommar

Genevieve Poblano — Content Manager

Director Ari Aster (Hereditary), has created one of the most thrilling and beautiful horror movies of 2019. From the death of the protagonist Dani’s family at the beginning, followed by what is supposed to be a pleasantly distracting trip to Sweden, the film keeps you uncomfortably at the edge of your seat. Studio A24 perfectly describes this film as a “dread-soaked cinematic fairytale.” It’s easily one of my favorite horror films because of the unexpected plot turns, cinematography, and perfectly accompanying score.

Refreshingly, this horror film takes place mostly in daylight. The use of bright colors captures the innocence of the ostensibly paradise-like festivities and serves as a contrast to the sinister events taking place in the village, as Cinematographer DP Pawel Porgorzelski manages to use daylight to create unsettling and dreamy scenes. There are even scenes shot and edited to take you into the state of mind of the drug-induced hallucinating victims. Fair warning: This film has quite a few graphic moments that will leave queasier viewers feeling uncomfortable (or possibly in shock).

The beautiful and nightmarish score from Bobby Krlic adds to the tension, pairing perfectly with the visual aesthetic to keep you uncomfortably transfixed on the gorgeous shots and weird cultish events taking place. The chaotic and innovative sound design really ties into the horror narrative and emotions of this film, from painful cries to the exaggerated inhaling and exhaling, all of which only adds to the intensity and disturbing experience of Midsommar.

The Lighthouse

Riley Young — Video Producer

I don’t think A24 has ever put out a bad movie, and this remains true with The Lighthouse. Director and producer, Robert Eggers, once again proves himself to be a master of creating not only first-rate horror films, but also what could be described as highly-immersive and detailed period-pieces.

The film opens on protagonist Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) arriving at an island, presumably off the coast of New England, to begin a contract position as a “wickie” or lighthouse keeper. Here he meets his supervisor and sole companion for the duration of his time on the island, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). Almost instantly you feel the tension build between the two characters as you watch Winslow being pushed to both his physical and psychological limits. Together, the emotionally raw performances given by Dafoe and Pattinson keep you on the edge of your seat right through the visceral and explosive climax.

Along with the stellar acting, the cinematography from Jarin Blaschke helps to create the bitter and bleak world these characters inhabit. The use of black-and-white and the 1.19:1 aspect ratio of the film evokes a claustrophobic mood that is both unsettling and inviting. The Lighthouse manages to fit perfectly into the developing horror-movie renaissance, while continuing to push the genre forward in new and exciting ways.

Knives Out

Luke Larsen — Computing Editor

Rian Johnson loves a good mystery. Whether it’s the hardboiled detective story of Brick or the skeleton in the closet that haunts Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi, it’s been a constant in the director’s colorful career.

Knives Out just might do it best. Johnson relishes the cliches of the mystery genre without getting too cute, serving up twists and turns that kept me guessing right up to the dazzling conclusion.

It’s certainly the most fun I had in a theater this year, and yet, there’s more to Knives Out than just a shallow game of Clue. There’s a potent message at the heart of the film about immigration and privilege that’s handled with a masterful level of care and nuance. The theme is sprinkled through like Johnson’s many red herrings, all rushing together in a brilliant final shot that made me leave the theater with a smile on my face.

Cats

Mathew Katz — Associate Managing Editor

Sometimes, movies just need to take a big swing. Tom Hooper, who previously directed the awful-yet-somehow-Academy-Award-winning 2012 adaptation of Les Misérables, decided to get weird with Cats. Based on the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical, the director leaned into the strangeness by using CGI to turn its star-studded cast into human-cat hybrids. The result is a fascinating mishmash of dizzying choreography and Uncanny Valley special effects. That’s why the collective internet freaked out every time we caught a glimpse of the mayhem in its trailers.
This may not be the best movie of the year, but it’s the riskiest and the most fascinating, capturing public imagination like nothing else in 2019.

Always be my maybe

Joshua Benton — Project Manager

Ali Wong and Randall Park have hilarious on screen chemistry that brings back vibes of SuperBad and other coming-of-age comedies, with the twist of rekindling lost love as a middle aged adult.

Also, the cameo by Keanu Reeves makes you wonder, “Is that how Keanu acts in real life!?” I was hooked from the opening scene and laughing throughout the movie, forgetting about time.

Jojo Rabbit

Drew Prindle — Features Editor

I walked into the theater thinking this movie would be nothing more than a lighthearted comedy about a kid who’s imaginary friend is Hitler. That’s how my friend explained it to me, and that’s really all I knew about it going in — so the only thing I expected it to be was funny.

But Jojo Rabbit is much, much more than that. As the story unfolds and Jojo finds out his mother is harboring a Jewish girl in the attic of his house, the movie quickly becomes an emotional roller coaster ride. One second it’ll be endearing and cute, and the next it’ll be heavy and heartbreaking. A scene will be nail-bitingly tense, and then, out of nowhere, it’ll transition to fun and uplifting.

Hell, sometimes what’s happening onscreen will put you at opposing ends of the emotional spectrum simultaneously — but amazingly, these dramatic swings aren’t jarring or unpleasant to experience. Instead, they’re thrilling. Director Taika Waititi dances between the film’s conflicting tones so effortlessly that you won’t be nauseated but his emotional roller coaster, you’ll throw your hands in the air and love every second of the ride.

Parasite

Will Nicol — Senior Writer

Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite opens on the Kims, a family living in a basement in a Seoul slum, working gig jobs just to afford food. So precarious is their existence, they have to leech Wi-Fi off their unsecured neighbors. A stroke of good fortune comes when son Ki-woo gets a job recommendation from a successful friend. Said friend is going abroad for a bit, and wants Ki-woo to take over as a tutor for the daughter of the wealthy Park family. Fooling Mrs. Park with forged credentials and smooth-talking, Ki-woo gets the job, and sees opportunities for the rest of his family to get in on the action.

Assuming false identities, the Kims infiltrate the Park household, taking on roles as an art teacher, chauffeur, and a housekeeper, ensconcing themselves in a life of luxury … until their plan hits an unexpected snag.

Parasite is a cunning film, a wild thriller cloaked in black comedy; it’s a film that charms you before sticking a knife in. Its clever plotting is matched by agile camerawork; each shot captures the stunning beauty of the Parks estate, and the rusty underworld of the Kims.

Dolemite Is My Name

Luke Dormehl — Freelance Writer

Like Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s 1994 comedic biopic about the titular B-movie (or worse) director, Dolemite Is My Name is an intriguing biopic written by the same screenwriters, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. This time, the duo turn their talents to real-life filmmaker Rudy Ray More, a would-be blaxploitation star who, frankly, wasn’t up there with the Richard Roundtrees and Jim Kellys of the era.

Dolemite Is My Name is a real hidden gem — and, unlike 2017’s The Disaster Artist (based on the making of The Room), you don’t need to be intimately acquainted with the movie it’s based on to find it enjoyable — although it certainly adds to the experience. The film features Eddie Murphy’s best performance in forever, managing to be both outrageously funny and heartfelt at once.

Detective Pikachu

Patrick Hearn — Smart Home Freelance Writer

How would the world function if Pokémon were real? As a kid, I spent many a playground period trying to answer this question with friends. Detective Pikachu handily answers that question. A Machamp works as a crossing guard and directs traffic around a sleeping Snorlax. A posse of Squirtle act as firefighters. Octillery takes the place of a news cameraman. Aside from adding flavor to an already-colorful world, the inclusion of Pokémon jobs immediately introduces the viewer to Rime City and its culture.

Critics berated Detective Pikachu for its formulaic story, and they weren’t far off the mark. The story wasn’t groundbreaking, but it did do one thing particularly well: It appealed to the nostalgia in fans’ hearts. The often-cheesy storylines of Pokémon films hold a certain charm that’s hard to forget, and Detective Pikachu finds that mark.

Detective Pikachu was one thing above all else: Fun. Even if it wasn’t critics’ favorite film this year, it was a blast of nostalgia that made the kid in me squeal in excitement.

Abominable

Frederick Milan Butzer — Payroll Administrator

Abominable is the epitome of “super cute,” offering a truly heartwarming adventure about a child who discovers a Yeti on the roof of her apartment and decides to help the wild creature who find his family. The film harkens me back to the days of old, when kids’ movies were clever, well-written and for the whole family; with positive messaging and reverent/humble role models as its chief characters. Abominable has no consumerism, gratuitous violence, or references to drugs/alcohol … or even any bad language. If you have a child or enjoy supporting your own inner-child, this movie is absolutely indispensable!

Us

Star du Chalard — PDX Office Administrator

Once again Jordan Peele has successfully shed his comedic persona and revealed what he was really thinking all those years between sketch comedies with Keegan Michael-Key. After wildly successfully suspense thriller Get Out garnered four Oscar nominations and a win for Best Original Screenplay in 2018, this director has moved forward to create another excellent horror film.

The movie begins by laying a thick blanket of tension that (at least) comforted me by reinforcing what I thought I knew. By the end of the movie that blanket was abruptly yanked back to show that I can’t trust myself and neither can you. I’m not proud of my silent screaming but that happened. Us blurred the line between the protagonist and antagonist, which made me feel extremely uncomfortable in the best way.

If you’re a fan of originality and this new Jordan Peele, you’ll thoroughly enjoy watching Us.

Alita: Battle Angel

Rick Marshall — Contributing Entertainment Editor

In my review of Alita: Battle Angel, I called the film a visually stunning spectacle set in a surprisingly fleshed-out world. Director Robert Rodriguez’s adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s popular manga series is all that and more, and it’s like no other film I saw this year.

I’m constantly in awe of the magic crafted by visual effects teams. They strive to make their work either go completely unnoticed (in the case of most historical dramas) or make the audience connect with something that’s entirely new, full of imaginative potential and wonder. There were few films this year that offered a better example of the latter than Battle Angel, a film set in a cyberpunk city filled with colorful characters and danger around every corner, featuring a hero who felt surprisingly human despite being a computer-generated character.

Going into the film, I fully expected the cyborg protagonist, Alita, to reside in the uncanny valley that prevents you from connecting with her on an emotional level. However, the combination of actress Rosa Salazar’s performance-capture work and next-level digital effects years in development had Alita holding her own in a cast filled with award-winning actors. Whether she’s hurtling through a demolition derby or quietly taking in the skyline of her new home, there’s a nuance and level of detail in the VFX artistry behind her that taps into the raw emotions that make us human. Alita: Battle Angel wasn’t the best film I saw this year, but it was the most surprising in the best possible way — and that counts for a lot.

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