Don’t let anyone tell you 2019 wasn’t a good year for film. They just didn’t see enough of them. The end of the decade is overflowing with great movies. Of the 206 films I saw in 2019, I’d proudly recommend 75 of them, and another few dozen I’d tell you to watch. Alas, a top ten just wasn’t going to do 2019 justice. The volume of films I saw is vast, but I have not seen everything. There will be some possible glaring omissions (see below) that just never became available or I couldn’t fit in time to see them.

In 2019, we saw masters of their craft at working at the height of their powers. We saw culminations of giant blockbuster franchises. There were many reasons to go to the movies in 2019, I hope to give 25 I loved and what I think are some of the years best. That said, I’m trying to stay away from words like “best”. Most peoples top 25 will not look like mine. Maybe you didn’t even see 25 films. Regardless, these are my personal favorites, movies that lie within my taste. But if you feel like checking them out I’ll let you know where you can see them. Reflecting is often my favorite part of the movie year so this is among my favorite things to write. So here we go.

Oops… I missed (Movies up for major awards or ones I just wanted to see): 1917, Little Women, Just Mercy, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Cats (Dammit!), Clemency, Monos, For Sama, Honeyland, Les Miserables

Honorable Mentions: The Mustang, Mike Wallace is Here, Knives Out, Diego Maradona, Diane, Avengers: Endgame, Booksmart, The Lighthouse, Marriage Story, I Lost My Body, The Peanut Butter Falcon, Birds of Passage, The Art of Self-Defense, Hail Satan?, Ford v. Ferrari

25. Non-Fiction (dir. Olivier Assayas)
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Olivier Assayas’s meditation on the digital age is supremely well-acted and sharply scripted to boot. Centering on a book publisher in Paris who is struggling with his most successful clients new manuscript, he finds himself at a crossroads. His actress wife (Juliette Binoche) finds the manuscript to her taste and the film ponders the pros and cons of the digital age. It’s something a Noah Baumbach film would hinge its plot on, but its executed very thoughtfully and with less pretension. Non-Fiction handles the uneasiness with the digital age and social media with great humor and some melancholic reflection of an era soon to be gone.
Where can you watch it: Hulu

24. Midsommar (dir. Ari Aster)
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Ari Aster’s follow up to his 2018 debut Hereditary is exquisitely crafted. Its technical virtuosities are obvious throughout the film. The movies unique, gorgeous production design and cinematography might not give off the vibe of traditional horror. In fact, Hereditary is much darker in color, but maybe not in subject matter. Midsommar follows the worlds worst boyfriend (Jack Reynor) and his girlfriend with a tragic past (the incredible Florence Pugh) to Sweden as they take in a festival held every ninety years. Hallucinogenic drugs and strange rituals only worsen the events as relationships begin to unravel. Pugh may very well give the performance of the year. It’s incredibly rewarding on a second viewing, so don’t let one make your decision. Every shot and moment of Aster’s film is deliberate and terrific making this a wonderful follow-up to his solid debut.
Where can you watch it: Amazon Prime Video

23. Atlantics (dir. Mati Diop)
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As far as debut’s go, Mati Diop’s Atlantics may be the very best directorial debut of the year. A supernatural love story brimming with sharp commentary on socioeconomic issues, Atlantics is gorgeously shot and terrifically acted. A young woman in Senegal, Ada, is in love with Souleiman, but she has been promised to another man, a wealthy man. Her one true love is a construction worker and departs leaving Ada behind. Strange things begin to happen and Ada may soon find herself reunited with Souleiman. Atlantics is touching and enveloping as Diop deftly creates so much with her characters in such a small window. The movie seamlessly blends the real and the supernatural with stunning ease for a first time filmmaker. Atlantics is a must see, and you can watch right in your own home.
Where can you watch it: Netflix

22. High Life (dir. Claire Denis)
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Claire Denis’s english language debut High Life may be the strangest film of the year; but I dug it. High Life quite possible will be thought of as “the movie with the sex box” which is given a much cruder name in the film. If you’ve seen it, you’ll understand. Robert Pattinson is tremendous in the film which follows prisoners sent to space to embark on a suicide mission to explore black holes. High Life is full of rich characters and some stunning, albeit haunting, visuals that will leave you either perplexed, or highly engaged in this remarkable film. Denis has always found ways to explore complex ideas. Here, she explores what society means to people when they are absent of any form of it. It’s aloof and it’s safe to say you will come out of the other side of the movie feeling a little gross from the journey, or you’ll ask “what was the point”. But man, what a journey Denis’s new film is.
Where can you watch it: Amazon Prime Video

21. Gloria Bell (dir. Sebastian Leilo)
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From the vastness of space and the heady themes of High Life, comes another A24 film. Gloria Bell is almost a polar opposite from my number 22 film. It’s lighthearted and quite funny all the while it poses questions about middle age and identity. You don’t have to go far, or even be middle aged, to find parallels to romance in todays in age. Sebastian Lelio’s remake of his own film, is breezy and ultimately a rewarding watch. That connectivity to our own lives, or even to people we know grounds the film, and a reliably great performance from Julianne Moore helps as well. Moore in the title role, reeling to some degree from divorce, works her uptight day job, and lets loose at night. Leilo’s study of family dynamics and the fears of introducing a new man into her family’s life are brilliantly executed here.
Where can you watch it: Amazon Prime Video

20. American Factory (dir. Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert)
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Few movies in 2019 are as indicative of our modern problems as Netflix’s compelling documentary American Factory. The movie takes a ground level view of a GM plant in Dayton, Ohio. Only the GM plant was shut down, and Chinese glass company Fuyao has moved in. Filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert juxtapose the blue-collar American values, with the matter of fact speed and tech influence of China. Part cautionary tale, part attempt to understand the Chinese businessmen obsessed with cutting costs and boosting productivity, American Factory is perhaps the most relevant American film of the year. Post-industrialism has rocked the rust belt, and American Factory attempts to understand, why and how we are where we are.
Where can you watch it: Netflix

19. Transit (dir. Christian Petzold)
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In Transit, Christian Petzold takes a novel about fleeing fascism in World War II France, and brings it to what appears to be modern day Marseille. Or maybe not. The idea that Petzold never gives any specific clues as to the time period is what makes Transit so engrossing. Franz Rogowski is a revelation in the film as Georg, a man attempting to escape what is ostensibly a version of a Nazi invasion. At the same time, he is in love with a woman searching for her missing husband. Transit‘s underlying, but undefined ticking clock is what paces the film. It’s thrilling without raising your pulse and heartbreaking without ever making you cry. It’s hard to pin down just what makes Transit so spellbinding, but it’s a must see.
Where can you watch it: Amazon Prime Video

18. A Hidden Life (dir. Terrence Malick)
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It’s very easy to discover why people do or don’t like Terrence Malick. Unquestionably, his movies are always gorgeous to look at. They are always well-acted. There is maybe no one else who understands the visual language of film better than Malick. All of that is true about his new film A Hidden Life, but for the first time since The Tree of Life, he’s struck gold. Of anything on this list, A Hidden Life has the potential to rise up on repeat viewings. Is it too long? Maybe. Does Malick rely on floating his camera through time and space a bit too much? Maybe. A Hidden Life, the story of an Austrian farmer and conscientious objector to World War II after refusing to fight for the Nazi’s, only benefits from Malick’s visual language. It is a powerful story of conviction and sacrifice. Even at its near three hour runtime, Malick fills every frame with gorgeous images and a somber but meaningful story.
Where can you watch it: Currently in theaters, however very limited as of now.

17. The Farewell (dir. Lulu Wang)
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With The Farewell, Lulu Wang has crafted something deeply personal and profound. It tells the story of Chinese-American, Billi (Awkwafina), who learns her grandmother is dying. The family does not inform Nai Nai she is dying, and they opt to stage a last minute wedding in order to arrange the family together to essentially say goodbye. Wang’s sensitive direction and dynamite script make The Farewell sad, funny, contemplative and all-around a really great film. Awkwafina is terrific, and Zhao Shuzhen as Nai Nai is perfect. Wang finds humor in the absurdity and the lengths the family goes to, to keep the secret. She also effectively pulls the emotion from audience without undercutting with humor. She lets the sadness play out. In that way, The Farewell feels authentic through its underlying melancholy, an incredible feat.
Where can you watch it: Available to rent on iTunes, Amazon, Vudu etc.

16. Apollo 11 (dir. Todd Douglas Miller)
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Apollo 11 is the years finest documentary. An impressively assembled set of original footage from one of the United States’ defining moments of the 20th century. With 2019 being the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, director Todd Douglas Miller takes his beautifully remastered footage to remind of us the unity that was felt as a nation in 1969. For a moment, we basked in the accomplishment of getting to the moon, a different understanding of nationalism. Miller immerses the viewer into what feels like lost footage someone happened to have stumbled upon. Clearly we must’ve all seen this before right? If at least for another moment, Miller unites in the spirit of the men and women who helped Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins get there. For a moment so engrained in our culture and national pride, it sure is incredible to see all of this footage come to life.
Where can you watch it: Hulu

15. Her Smell (dir. Alex Ross Perry)
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Aside from giving a brief, but very memorable performance in another 2019 film (more on that later) Elisabeth Moss lent her talents to Her Smell. Alex Ross Perry’s new film is manic, intense and supremely well acted. Moss is incredible and gives a magnetic and unsettling performance as a punk-rock front woman spiraling out of control. The films seemingly constant score from composer Keegan DeWitt haunts every frame. Still, in its quieter moments, Perry reflects on fame, addiction and other familiar themes but in a way that feels entirely fresh. If you saw Vox Lux, this film builds upon the themes in more interesting and dynamic ways. Becky Something, Moss’s character, feels like someone real, and her eventual downfall feels even more authentic.
Where can you watch it: HBO

14. An Elephant Sitting Still (dir. Hu Bo)
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If Terrence Malick directed a 3 hour and 40 minute Chinese film with several intersecting tales, it might look a lot like An Elephant Sitting Still. Of course, that is not to take away from Hu Bo and his masterful first and sadly, only film. An Elephant Sitting Still is bleak, and the story around it is tragic. Hu Bo took his own life upon completing post production at the age of 29. An Elephant Sitting Still is expansive and rarely sees optimism in a world where its main characters are nearly driven to their own ends. They find solace in knowing an elephant sits in a nearby city, ignoring the world. Its visuals are stunning and the movie truly never comes to a resolution. From dusk till dawn over one day, Hu may be writing his own epitaph, and the immense sadness around it certainly points to that. But, as pitch black as An Elephant Sitting Still is, one thing is for certain, we lost a filmmaker who appeared to be just getting started. It’s a truly remarkable piece of art.
Where can you watch it: Available on Criterion Channel streaming service.

13. High Flying Bird (dir. Steven Soderbergh)

This one came early in the year, and I’m not sure it actually got a theatrical release. Regardless, Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird constructs an incredible commentary on many aspects of our current lives. Shot an iPhone, and centered around the NBA in a fictional lockout, Andre Hollins is superb as a sports agent negotiating a big deal that will end the lockout. I surmised early this year that the film has more on its mind than just solving an NBA lockout in a compelling drama. Is Soderbergh’s larger metaphor his take on the streaming wars? The fact the movie centers on an agent giving the power to the players a league where business rules was shot on an iPhone and distributed by Netflix doesn’t seem to be a coincidence. As I mentioned in my review earlier this year, Netflix is the agent and Soderbergh is the player. You can probably solve the rest.
Where can you watch it: Netflix

12. Ad Astra (dir. James Gray)
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Ad Astra has a lot on its mind. Brad Pitt’s taciturn performance as Roy McBride guides the ship and the film contemplates loneliness by reflecting on his past. His relationship with his father (Tommy Lee Jones) and what it meant to him is a focal point. The visuals are stunning and every detail feels entirely thought out including a colonized moon that one flies commercial to, and there is a Subway there. In our capitalist world, there’s no doubt in my mind we’d bring Subway to the moon. But Gray’s interests lie beyond that. Ad Astra explores humanity and sacrifice in the face of obeying superiors. McBride’s entire personality hinges on the ghost of his father, who may not even be a ghost anymore. It’s a complete pleasure to watch Pitt maybe at his best, and a director who has created visual poetry.
Where can you watch it: Available to rent on iTunes, Amazon, Vudu etc.

11. Long Day’s Journey Into Night (dir. Bi Gan)
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Among cinephiles, Long Day’s Journey Into Night will likely be remembered as the movie who’s title card appears 70 minutes in, and is followed by a dazzling 55 minute long take to conclude the film. Bi Gan’s new film is more than a gimmick. A epic love story following a man who attempts to reconnect with a lost love after years have passed. The movie was met with controversy in China as marketing suggested the movie would be a great way to ring in the New Year with the films climax occurring as the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve. Audiences were appalled to find the film is much more experimental. The aforementioned long take is breathtaking and a true “how did they do that” moment. It’s all a big time power move. However, Bi ensures the story is not lost among the virtuoso technical aspects of the film. It’s engrossing, lovely and weaves together a love story that felt unsurpassed in 2019.
Where can you watch it: Available to rent on iTunes, Amazon, Vudu etc.

10. Ash Is Purest White (dir. Jia Zhangke)
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It’s possible Chinese cinema is reaching the United States mindset more than it has before. It’s also likely it was a just a great year for films in China. Regardless, of the Chinese films I saw this year, undoubtedly Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is Purest White is the most sublime. Like the previous film on this list, Ash Is Purest White delivers an epic romance set over years. After a woman fires a gun to protect her mobster boyfriend, she is taken to jail. Upon the end of her sentence five years later, she begins her journey to find him. It’s sweeping, beautifully shot and tremendously heartbreaking. Told in three parts, Ash Is Purest White finds Jia reflecting on the vastness of the world and our small place in it. In its vastness, sometimes the past has to die, and love is not always the saving grace, a hard lesson to learn, but strangely rewarding to see in this beautiful film.

9. Pain and Glory (dir. Pedro Almodovar)
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Pain and Glory marked a few firsts for me. It is the very first film of Almodovar’s I have seen. It is also the first time a movie, in the years I’ve begun to watch and review them, hit me more as time passed. Pain and Glory started somewhere in the thirty’s for me, and upon reflection, it began to move higher and higher. It landed at number nine, and for good reason. Antonio Banderas has maybe never been better in this semi-autobiography of Almodovar himself. Banderas plays Salvador Mallo, a filmmaker who’s physical pain has become unbearable and turns to heroin. But it’s about more than just that. Mallo reflects on his poverty stricken upbringings, his first experience with his sexuality and death. Reconciling with his past can save his future. The movie also features a terrific performance from Penelope Cruz. Pain and Glory may boast the years most emotionally affecting ending. Above all, it’s just a really lovely film.
Where can you watch it: Available for digital purchase on January 13.

8. Us (dir. Jordan Peele)
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Jordan Peele’s Get Out might be the more culturally impactful film, but Us was an experience I will never forget. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Us three times and its spellbinding effect works every time. A masterclass dual performance by Lupita Nyong’o propels Us into the stratosphere. It’s funny, utterly thrilling and wildly entertaining throughout. But like Get Out, the film has more to say than just what’s on the surface. It is a fascinating dive into our own human nature and the duality of all Americans. With Us Peele proves that Get Out wasn’t a fluke. He has big ideas, and his injection of those ideas into accessible horror and thriller stories feels seamless. Us was the surprise of the year for me and one of my favorite experiences in a theater in 2019.
Where can you watch it: HBO

7. The Last Black Man In San Francisco (dir. Joe Talbot)
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The film I knew the absolute least about going into it this year was The Last Black Man in San Francisco. When the film ended I was stunned at the craft, the storytelling and the uniqueness of Joe Talbot’s debut. Actors Jimmie Fails (above right) and Jonathon Majors (left) give two of the years most raw and naturalistic performances. Majors is truly impressive as Jimmie’s best friend and confidant Mont and gives one of the years best performances. This is a film very much focused on the gentrification and the rapidly collapsing real estate crisis unfolding in San Francisco. Jimmie (who plays a character of the same name in the film) spends his days attempting to restore the victorian home his grandfather built. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a touching and heartfelt piece that plays into a major theme at the movies in 2019, the passage of time, and the good and bad that comes with it.
Where can you watch it: Amazon Prime Video

6. Parasite (dir. Bong Joon-ho)
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Director Bong Joon-ho has long been a filmmaker who’s drastic tonal shifting has left me out in the cold. Okja and Snowpiercer didn’t fully come together for me. Memories of Murder, which was released before the previous two, felt like the first time I connected with Director Bong’s tonal shift. Then came Parasite. This film is a stunning accomplishment. It’s Bong Joon-ho working at his very best, combining all his strengths to create his masterpiece. A tale of class struggle in which a poor Korean family cons their way into jobs at the home of a well-to-do Korean family. It’s best to go into Parasite with limited knowledge of the film. I will say this, few films in 2019 are as thrilling, funny and as rich in subtext as this one. Parasite is a true joy to watch, and a film that can only grow in estimation as time passes. It’s themes are timeless for this movie to disappear.
Where can you watch it: Currently still playing in a few theaters

5. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (dir. Quentin Tarantino)
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Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino working at his most sentimental, and possibly his angriest. It’s clear that Tarantino is nostalgic for an era that ostensibly ended on one fateful night in 1969. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood isn’t a Manson Family Murders movie. It’s not even a Sharon Tate movie. It’s a film that simply wonders how it all could’ve been. Impressively, all of that is woven into a richly compelling story of a fading TV star relegated to the role of the heavy on network TV programs, and his best friend, the mysterious, but charismatic stunt double. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt are fantastic spouting QT’s witty and sharp dialogue, but it might just be Margot Robbie who steals the show. Robbie, playing Sharon Tate, captures an innocence, an almost naïveté, that maybe defined the 60’s. Its also how Tarantino seems to feel about this material, and quite possibly the reason he lashes out at the films conclusion. Still, the majority of the great moments in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood can be described with a word I don’t know that I’ve ever used to describe one of his films: beautiful.
Where can you watch it: Available to rent on iTunes, Amazon, Vudu etc.

4. Uncut Gems (dir. Josh & Benny Safdie)
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The most recent film I have seen on this list is one that I wish I had gotten to see earlier, and more often. Upon the films conclusion and the credits rolling I had one thought in my mind: The Safdie Brothers, forever. Uncut Gems is propulsive, manic and maybe the most stressful watch of the year. Adam Sandler is at his very best, doing things he’s done so many times. It’s a goofy character, he’s kind of a sociopath, and yet the Safdie’s understand how to build from Sandler, to Howard Ratner, the diamond district hustler. He is magnetic, and so is the Safdie’s style. It has similarities to their 2017 masterpiece Good Time, but yet it still feels uniquely their own and completely new. Also, Kevin Garnett is a great actor? Uncut Gems delivers thrills, laughs and an ultra naturalistic look into this business. It’s style is outlandish, but its stakes never are, a pretty rare feat to accomplish. The Safdie Brothers are cinemas most unique and exciting auteurs and Uncut Gems is another notch in their belt.
Where can you watch it: Currently in theaters

3. Waves (dir. Trey Edward Shults)
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If Us was the most thrilling and fun experience I had in the theater this year, Waves is certainly the most emotional one. Waves hit me on so many emotional levels. This is another film I would recommend going into knowing as little as possible. Sterling K. Brown plays the tough patriarch of a middle-class family in Florida. Brown is exceptional and the fact he hasn’t gotten more award season love is astonishing. The big standouts however are Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Taylor Russell. Both are absolutely heartbreaking and give tour-de-force performances. It’s style (despite some critiques) truly doesn’t distract from its substance. Shults plays with color and aspect ratios to signify the downward spiral in the film. It’s viewpoints on toxic masculinity and forgiveness are never handled with a heavy hand. It never feels cheap. I was knocked out by this film and found myself misty eyed through much of it. Waves is one of the most under-seen movies of the year and there are very few films that moved me as much as this one did.
Where can you watch it: Currently still playing in a few theaters

2. The Souvenir (dir. Joanna Hogg)
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Upon my first viewing, I was convinced Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir was special. When I watched it for a second time, it cemented its place as an upper tier film from 2019. The film tells the story — lifted from a personal anecdote from Hogg’s own experiences in film school — of a film student Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) and her manipulative and soon to be addict boyfriend Anthony (Tom Burke) is a truly remarkable tale of said addiction and the ups and downs of dealing with one. I was absolutely transfixed by this film. It is quiet, but fierce in its convictions and its refusal to judge its characters for who they are. Julie and Anthony have no business being together. Still, Hogg chooses to explore why they could be together, and looks at what would be a scarring time of anyone’s life with grace and tremendous empathy. Hogg’s films are usually always bolstered by their stillness. She rarely ever moves the camera, instead choosing to focus on what is in the frame, and the story can be told in just one space. It’s haunting, and its ending will leave you breathless.
Where can you watch it: Amazon Prime Video

1. The Irishman (dir. Martin Scorsese)
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(Minor spoilers for the movie below if you have not seen it)
The years finest film has a six minute sequence nearly two and half hours in where not a word is spoken, but you feel the absolute power and profound sadness of it all. When Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) is tasked with something that he may never recover from, The Irishman fires on all emotional cylinders. The final hour of the film is among the most moving pieces of cinema I’ve seen in a very long time. Martin Scorsese rallies “the gang” (Joe Pesci and DeNiro) back together again in The Irishman. But not to have a good time exploring mob dynamics. Though GoodFellas is truly about terrible people, it’s hard not to have great time watching it, and Scorsese never glamorizes it. Here, he brings the gang back together to explore the finality of death, and the choices we have made along the way, good and terrible.  I will forever die on the hill that this films 200 minute plus runtime is every bit justified by the complexities Marty is exploring.

The Irishman isn’t just another gangster picture. It’s a sad look at the life of Frank Sheeran. He took what life gave him, but at tremendous cost. It’s almost more cruel that by the end of his life, Frank is relegated to dying alone in a nursing home, no family to come visit him rather than being gunned down to atone for his sins. There’s nothing flashy about the film like his previous gangster movies. Pesci is reserved, internal and gives an absolutely jaw-dropping performance. I may be making a predictable choice for the best of 2019, but I’ve long revered Mr. Scorsese’s work, and he’s done something truly quite spectacular with The Irishman. 
Where can you watch it: Netflix

What were your favorite films of 2019? Stay tuned in 2020 for much more content including (fingers crossed) weekly reviews of the newest films.

Here is a link to my overall rankings 1-206 from 2019: https://letterboxd.com/rileygrandson/list/2019-ranked/

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