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Best movies of 2019, according to critics

  • Best movies of 2019, according to critics

    Movie critics are trained in the language of cinema. When they rate a movie, they look at much more than just whether a film is entertaining. Critics look at a film’s ability to convey ideas and inspire reflection; they examine a film’s artistry, technical prowess, and philosophical stance, and they notice shot composition, lighting, and editing (and understand how these techniques link to a film’s themes or meanings). Because critics understand this greater context, the films that most often catch their attention and earn their highest praise go beyond mainstream flicks or blockbusters to be enjoyed with popcorn in hand.

    In 2019, there were a few box office hits that earned top scores from critics. The mega-hit “Toy Story 4” topped $1 billion worldwide and ranked highly with reviewers. Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” starring a powerhouse cast including Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, was also a box office hit that wowed critics. However, many of the films that ranked highest in 2019 are less familiar arthouse films, international films, or independent features that premiered on the festival circuit. These are the kinds of films that explore the cinematic medium with a creative intensity that’s often absent in the big box office hits.

    The best films of 2019, according to critics, often explore themes related to the human condition in its contemporary form by exploring subjects like dislocation, alienation, the refugee experience, gentrification, and queer romance. Such films also highlight stories that center on those with disabilities or with perspectives beyond the viewpoint of the dominant norm. However, such films also use popular modes such as the gangster film or horror genre to offer fresh revamps of familiar tropes with lyrical, poetic styles. In 2019, documentaries also ranked highly with critics, with some of the best documentaries exploring culturally relevant topics with innovative cinematic style.

    Stacker compiled data in November 2019 from Metacritic on the best-reviewed films of the year by critics and ranked them according to their Metascore, ties broken by the number of reviews. To be eligible, the film had to be released in theaters or online between Jan. 1, 2019 and Dec. 31, 2019, and have at least seven reviews. Get ready for a list of aesthetically excellent movies that entertain, but not always in the ways you may expect.

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  • #50. Shadow

    - Director: Zhang Yimou
    - Metascore: 81
    - Number of reviews: 25
    - Runtime: 116 min

    Zhang Yimou is known for his striking use of color, style, and epic scale in previous films such as “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers.” In “Shadow,” his stunning visual style is on full display in another wuxia saga centered on martial arts legends. In his film review on The Wrap, Carlos Aguilar describes this film’s use of the yin and yang symbol as a way to explore its theme of duality: “In every frame, the viewer is aware that this story is dealing with the inseparable forces of light and darkness.”

  • #49. Waves

    - Director: Trey Edward Shults
    - Metascore: 81
    - Number of reviews: 35
    - Runtime: 136 min

    Director Trey Edward Shults may only be 30 years old, but his third film “Waves” garners high reviews for its stirring tale set within a family drama and its stirring performances from a cast that includes Sterling K. Brown, Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Taylor Russell. In her review for The Wrap, Sasha Stone offers that “‘Waves’ is a story about how people can get tangled in and around their own complicated emotions but are able to ultimately find their way back to each other after growing apart.”

  • #48. Ford v Ferrari

    - Director: James Mangold
    - Metascore: 81
    - Number of reviews: 45
    - Runtime: 152 min

    Matt Damon and Christian Bale star in this car racing film that dramatizes the real-life 1966 competition that matched up race cars from Ford and Ferrari. David Sims at The Atlantic writes that “the heart of the film is in the oily garages below the executive suites, where Ford’s mechanics and drivers strive to create a machine worthy of challenging Ferrari’s perfection.” Damon plays an engineer up against corporate interference as he tries to get his design on the track and his racer of choice (Bale) in the driver’s seat.

  • #47. Us

    - Director: Jordan Peele
    - Metascore: 81
    - Number of reviews: 56
    - Runtime: 116 min

    Jordan Peele’s chilling follow-up to “Get Out” is set at a beach house where a family of four (Lupita Nyong’o plays the family matriarch) gets imperiled when menacing figures in orange jumpsuits (who look identical to the family members) show up outside. Kambole Campbell writing for Little White Lies explains that “with the doppelgangers, who refer to themselves as ‘The Tethered’, Peele takes aim at how society interacts with underclasses and Others; the Tethered appear as creepy, funhouse-mirror versions of ourselves.”

  • #46. Relaxer

    - Director: Joel Potrykus
    - Metascore: 82
    - Number of reviews: 7
    - Runtime: 91 min

    “Relaxer” aims to elevate gross-out derangement to absurdist glory as it presents the story of Abbie (Joshua Burge) a man trapped in his seedy apartment as Y2K approaches. Critics recognize the film’s sour tone as uniquely attuned to themes surrounding its slacker antihero. As Eric Kohn puts it on Indiewire, director Joel Potrykus takes “a cartoonish lowbrow approach to acerbic social critique” with this film.

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  • #45. Wrestle

    - Directors: Lauren Belfer, Suzannah Herbert
    - Metascore: 82
    - Number of reviews: 8
    - Runtime: 96 min

    Suzannah Herbert’s poignant documentary follows four high school wrestlers in Huntsville, Alabama as they compete for wrestling scholarships that could change their lives. As John DeFore posits in his post for The Hollywood Reporter that this high school sports documentary (in the vein of “Hoop Dreams”) features “personal narratives and class/race-conscious themes that have a stronger pull than usual.”

  • #43. The Two Popes (tie)

    - Director: Fernando Meirelles
    - Metascore: 82
    - Number of reviews: 9
    - Runtime: 125 min

    This biopic stars Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict and Johnathan Pryce as Pope Francis, with each actor giving an acclaimed performance in a film that shows the two popes in conversations, and in flashbacks, that orient their differing points of view. In her review of the film for Vulture, Alison Willmore describes the film as “a series of duels between [the popes], sometimes, about the nature of their faith, and the future of the organization to which they’ve devoted their lives.”

  • #43. Angels Are Made of Light (tie)

    - Director: James Longley
    - Metascore: 82
    - Number of reviews: 9
    - Runtime: 117 min

    This documentary gives a voice to the children of Kabul, Afghanistan, following students in the war-torn city as they confront their future amidst continued political unrest. The film was shot across three years and features voiceovers culled from hours of recorded conversations. In his review for the Los Angeles Times, critic Kenneth Turan applauds the film on its ability to handle its complex subject matter with grace. In his review, Turan also commends director James Longley—who had previously earned an Oscar nomination for his 2006 film, “Iraq in Fragments”—for his “magical ability to envelope us in other realities.”

  • #41. Give Me Liberty (tie)

    - Director: Kirill Mikhanovsky
    - Metascore: 82
    - Number of reviews: 13
    - Runtime: 110 min

    This heartwarming drama follows a medical transport driver, Vic (Chris Galust), who runs behind schedule as he drives his elderly grandfather and a cohort of relatives to a funeral but finds his route derailed by a protest and several schedule-sabotaging mishaps. The film gains praise for its inclusive representation, as the film portrays not just a culturally diverse cast, but also one in which many of the amateur actors have disabilities like the characters they portray. As reviewer Jennie Kermode explains in her review for Eye for Film, “the immigrant experience is as important to the film as disability.”

  • #41. Carmine Street Guitars (tie)

    - Director: Ron Mann
    - Metascore: 82
    - Number of reviews: 13
    - Runtime: 80 min

    “Carmine Street Guitars” is a documentary that focuses on artisan Rick Kelly and his Greenwich Village shop where he handcrafts custom guitars, some of which have been built for the likes of Bob Dylan and other major rockers. This acclaimed documentary celebrates music and artistry, rendering both as something pure beyond corporate culture and consumerism. In his review of the film for Variety, Owen Gleiberman writes that it is the film's eccentricity that makes it so mesmerizing, and that its appeal stems largely from what a “stubbornly off-the-beat concoction it is.”

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