In 2019 I watched over a thousand movies, more than half of those were crime films and I watched as many new and recent ones as I could, but I still feel entirely unqualified to declare these the best because there are so many blind spots still. But, off the top of my head, I still have not seen: ADORATION, ASH IS PUREST WHITE, BIRDS OF PASSAGE, A BLUEBIRD IN MY HEART, COME TO DADDY, CROWN & ANCHOR, CROWN VIC, DOGMAN, FIRST LOVE, THE GANGSTER THE COP THE DEVIL, INTO ASHES, KNIFE + HEART, MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN, THE NIGHTINGALE, TALL TALES, THEM THAT FOLLOW, VILLAINS, WHY DON’T YOU JUST DIE, and WILD GOOSE LAKE—all of which I’d give a sporting chance to have made this list.
Some of the flicks listed are not official 2019 releases, but they are very recent and I only got to them in 2019. Also worth noting that I’m not ranking them, only listing my ten favorites in alphabetical order.
THE BOUNCER (aka LUKAS) — Directed by Julien Leclercq
For a teenager of the ’80s, the sensation of seeing Jean Claude Van Damme looking like overcooked and then hammered pot roast is a little difficult to describe. If you’d been paying attention when CYBORG, BLOODSPORT, and KICKBOXER were coming out, if you’d known JCVD as ‘the muscles from Brussels’ and just what an adorably baby-faced, smooth skinned ball of muscle he’d been back then…the impact of seeing him looking so chewed up and spit out is something. Personally, I’m really enjoying this chapter in Van Damme’s career. He’s got a good sense of himself as a performer and as an action icon and he’s taking a lot projects that are smart enough to use the whole package—the legend and the baggage—to optimal effect. Yeah, it’s got some fistfighting, gunplay, and even a car chase, but it’s not the JCVD vehicle of decades past; this one’s not superhuman, it’s got a lot of grit and heart to match.
THE DEATH OF DICK LONG — Directed by Daniel Scheinert
One night after band practice in the garage, a trio of rural southern blue collar pals blow off a little steam in their usual manor: alcohol, drugs, firearms, firecrackers and by the end of the night one of them will have died after being left in the parking lot outside the hospital. The attending physician summons the police and reports the very disturbing condition of the unknown corpse and a homicide investigation is immediately opened. Meanwhile the surviving duo scramble to cover their tracks, establish alibis and find the personal fortitude not to fall apart under the slightest bit of outside pressure while their minds and guts boil and their consciences have distinctly differing reactions. If I were to just tell you the plot of THE DEATH OF DICK LONG you’d probably laugh or recoil in horror—you might be dying to see it or never ever ever want to even think about it ever again. But hearing the plot and watching the film are vastly different experiences and I highly recommend the latter. Scheinert, after all is one of the guys who gave us SWISS ARMY MAN which is often (and not inaccurately) described as the farting corpse movie, but to dismiss it as only a farting corpse movie is to miss a lot. Likewise, THE DEATH OF DICK LONG could be described as the Something-Something movie and it is, but it’s also so much more.
The first two acts are intense and suspenseful, but also very funny as we watch our maladroit men do an utterly inept job of covering up their crime and when the audience first understands the awful truth of how and why Dick died it’s a moment worth all the build up. It’s also the zinger where most stories would end. It’s a hell of a punchline, but we’re not shown the mercy of getting back to our lives just yet. No, we have a harrowing third act to go that’s all reckoning and coming to terms with the truth and I’m impressed with Scheinert, screenwriter Billy Chew the entire crew (especially Michael Abbott Jr. and Virginia Newcomb) for wringing many distinct and complex emotional arcs out of what would 99.9 times out of 100 be a one-joke premise. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled is playing a Nickleback song over the end credits that is an actual emotional punch in the gut. Ho-lee shit.
DESTROYER — Directed by Karyn Kusama
Nicole Kidman plays a police detective whose latest case appears to have ties to an earlier one. The film splits the narrative between her current investigation and her character’s past as an undercover asset with a group of high desert outlaws. DESTROYER features some terrific violent content including bank robberies, pistol-whippings, and dirty fighting—plus it’s a satisfying story of criminality and corruption and taking a shot at fortifying the future even if you know you’ll never see it. Also, Nicole Kidman’s onscreen love interest is the fifteen years her junior Sebastian Stan which is cool (let’s make that age gap go this way a little more often, huh?) This one hit my sweet spot h-a-r-d.
DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE — Directed by S. Craig Zahler
Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn play suspended cops who go looking for some villains to rob because they’re hard up for cash. Tory Kittles and Michael Jai White play heisters for hire who take a gig with the out of town crew Gibson and Vaughn have been staking out. The out of town crew? Yeah, fucking psychos who turn every job into an excuse to shoot people to death. This is a fantastic hardboiled criminal tale about going after the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow with every shade of morality gray represented. And some pitch fucking black in there too. Zahler’s best yet.
HOLIDAY — Directed by Isabella Eklöf
Victoria Carmen Sonne plays Sascha, a naive young woman on holiday with her older boyfriend and his pals. They stay in nice spots, eat at good restaurants, hit the best clubs, and always get their way in large part because they’re violent criminals and thugs. People stay out of their way because everyone who gets close to them can feel the danger. Everyone, that is, except Sascha. The film opens with Sascha shopping in a trendy boutique and when her credit card is declined she decides to pay with some cash she’s a courier for on behalf of one of her boyfriend’s illicit activities. When she tells the bagman that the count is a little short because she needed to buy some jewelry he slaps her and threatens her with the most chillingly absolute declaration of his indifference to her well-being and that threat that she could be left behind or killed outright at any moment for any reason is a lesson well learned…by the audience. It never leaves the viewers’ minds.
Throughout the beautiful, scenic tourist activities it sits in the pits of our stomachs like a sack of wet rags, only Sascha seems to have forgotten it and moved on without any kind of appreciation of the danger she is in. We spend the run time of the film watching her blindfolded tightrope walk across the abyss maddeningly oblivious until reality can be suppressed no longer and then… This movie is rough. It’s an exercise in sustained dread that stuck with me for weeks afterward.
HUSTLERS — Directed by Lorene Scafaria
Constance Wu plays Destiny, a dancer taken under the wing of Jennifer Lopez’s Ramona to learn how to hustle more efficiently in this true story of a very lucrative run made by a group of, um, hustlers during the Great Recession. It’s the fucking GOODFELLAS of stripper movies with Wu in the Liotta role and J-Lo as De Niro and I really don’t mean that in a reductive sense—it’s meant to be high praise. This movie has flash and real sex appeal—the hustle and the action are the really sexy bits—as well as heart and a tragic flaw that brings the whole thing crashing down. It’s got some of the most immediately iconic lines for Lopez too; “Doesn’t money make you horny?,” the fur coat, and her perfect summation of American capitalism: “people tossing the money and people doing the dance.” I am here for the Jennaissance.
THE IRISHMAN — Directed by Martin Scorsese
Scorsese gets the gang back together for a final chapter in his “America is a crime story” cycle and it’s a doozy. On the surface it may look like a diminishing return to familiar territory, but it’s actually a haunting coda for this type of his films (GANGS OF NEW YORK, MEAN STREETS, GOODFELLAS, CASINO). The familiar faces are back as are the Scorsese-isms that have permeated popular film for decades now, but it isn’t all recycling and nostalgia, we’re in a new mode with a new lens through which to see these stories. The picture has big moments and loud punctuations, but is shot through with a mournful stillness appropriate for the type of aged decline the actors, the characters, their schemes and dreams and even the kind of picture they’re being featured in (Pesci especially is a revelation as Russell Bufalino). Plenty of perfect pop needle drops from Marty, but a three and a half hour run time also leans on Robbie Robertson’s score (appropriate for a getting the band back together again project) that shoulders the proceedings and carries them toward their unavoidable end like a slow, steady train a-coming.
PIMP — Directed by Christine Crokos
This slice of street life crime picture has tendrils in so many competing styles without ever committing to one that it takes an especially strong central element to hold it all together. I don’t mean that as a criticism of the script, but as testament to the strength, commitment, and charisma of Keke Palmer’s performance as Wednesday, a pimp like her daddy before her. Part urban-exploitation, part hardcore crime thriller, part romantic melodrama, and part morality fable it delivers the genre thrills and occasionally knocks you around emotionally when you’ve left yourself vulnerable. This one tackles sensitive material with all the nuance and sober subtlety “a Lee Daniels production” is famous for (infamous for?), but there’s no denying the raw power of Crokos’ engine and Palmer’s fuel. Escape to New York? Side note: pretty sure that Keke Palmer is the only actor to show up on this list twice (she’s also part of the HUSTLERS ensemble).
THE STANDOFF AT SPARROW CREEK — Directed by Henry Dunham
The story concerns a small militia group deep in the dark heart of the American wilderness who discover that one of them may have started a war with the cops. The group whose politics are never discussed are torn between sniffing out and offering up their member who shot up a cop’s funeral and bracing for inevitable Armageddon. The dramatic tension is expertly drawn out and the cast are uniformly good. I can’t wait to see where Dunham’s career goes from here.
UNCUT GEMS — Directed by The Safdie Brothers
Howard Ratner is making moves, breaking deals and delaying consequences like a motherfucker. He connives, he wheedles, he lies, he cheats, he promises, he is making risky, reckless transactions all day and night. He may tell himself he’s trying to get on top for once, but it sure looks to everybody else like he’s trying to lose. The pressure he’s under from business relations, bookies, family members, lovers, and God himself are enough to make the central metaphor stick (to paraphrase Ferris Bueller: “he’s so tight that if you stuck a lump of coal up his ass in a week you’d have a diamond”). Does it sparkle in the end? Adam Sandler is a fucking tornado of nervous energy in this nauseatingly effective thriller. “Enjoy your embolism” or “all the fun of a major coronary event” might as well have been the taglines on the poster.
Seriously, this movie never lets up. The Safdies’ greatest strength is their knack for casting. Aside from Sandler, Keith Williams Richards is terrifying as the main heavy, Kevin Garnett gives an unusually strong performance as himself—much better and leaned on much harder than your typical non-actor cameo—and John Amos’ cameo works as a funny bit of self-referencing for the Safdies. Good times indeed.
Tags: Adam Sandler, Christine Crokos, Daniel Scheinert, Henry Dunham, Isabella Eklöf, James Badge Dale, jean claude van damme, Jennifer Lopez, Joe Pesci, Julien Leclercq, Karyn Kusama, Keke Palmer, Lorene Scafaria, Martin Scorsese, mel gibson, Nicole Kidman, Robert De Niro, S. Craig Zahler, The Safdie Brothers, Vince Vaughn