Assembling the “most satisfying” movies and TV shows of 2019 reflected a desire to acknowledge projects that best accomplished what they set out to do, as well as pleasant surprises.
Context matters, which is why, for example, very good movies from directors who have made better ones, Martin Scorsese (“The Irishman”) and Quentin Tarantino (“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”), didn’t make the cut. Put them in the “honorable mention” category.
An effort was made to recognize various genres, understanding that any such recap can only scratch the surface of what’s available.
Most items are presented as pairs, but a few lacked a clear companion. With that, in no particular order:
“Watchmen” and “The Boys”
What are the odds there would be two first-class programs about dysfunctional superheroes – and nearly a third, if you count the somewhat lesser “Umbrella Academy” on Netflix? “Watchmen” might have been the year’s most audacious undertaking, delicately erecting a new mythology on top of an existing source. Amazon’s “The Boys” was no slouch, exploring the dark, corrupting side of power.
“Succession” and “The Crown”
Two different kinds of royal families continued to shine in their new seasons, with “The Crown” reloading with new stars, and “Succession” deftly building on its scathing look at a media dynasty where money and power are thicker than blood.
“The Big Bang Theory” and “Jane the Virgin”
Great series finales are always rare, and there were two of them this year, both filled with warmth and heart that, most significantly, were very much in keeping with the spirit of the shows. Notably, the only two shows from the traditional networks to grace this list had to say goodbye to do it.
“Chernobyl” and ‘When They See Us”
The limited series (once known as the miniseries) might be TV’s most vibrant form creatively right now, yielding splendid productions like “Escape at Dannemora” and “Fosse/Verdon.” But these two historical projects – about the Soviet nuclear disaster and the Exonerated Five – stood above the rest, looking back while still feeling like stark warnings and commentary about where we are now.
“Barry’ and “Fleabag”
Both shows had particularly stellar second seasons, providing a dark strain of comedy that could alternately be wildly funny and wonderfully uncomfortable. “Fleabag” writer-star Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s other creation, “Killing Eve,” faded a bit in season two, but rests on the outskirts of great shows about people who kill people.
Disney+ left its mark on the streaming competition, and not just because its first live-action “Star Wars” series gave the world “baby Yoda” and launched a million memes. Going back to the future, the show combined theatrical production values with the economy of old TV westerns, in a way that somehow felt fresh, new and mostly, fun.
At a time when there’s too much shouting in media, the PBS program offered thoughtful documentaries about the present state of our politics, soberly tackling such issues as control of the Supreme Court, the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Mueller investigation, and the war in Syria. PBS is alternately besieged and taken for granted, but when cooler heads seldom prevail, it remains welcome and necessary.
“Late Show With Stephen Colbert” and “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver”
For those who like their news filtered through a comedic prism, these latenight shows fronted by “The Daily Show” alums delivered not only wit and laughs, but a clarity that sometimes appears to be in short supply.
“Avengers: Endgame” and “Toy Story 4”
The fourth entries in these franchises both felt like genuine endings – with emotion as well as excitement – offering a reminder that blockbuster filmmaking can still be thrilling when it accomplishes precisely what it sets out to do.
“Ford v. Ferrari” and “Knives Out”
While very different films, each exemplified the best of what felt like traditional studio concepts and star power – a “The Right Stuff”-like look at men driving fast machines, and an old-fashioned murder mystery with a newfangled twist. Their success offered renewed hope that there’s no room in theaters for movies without CGI battles in them.
“Fyre” and “The Inventor: Out For Blood in Silicon Valley”
Few documentaries have the meme-worthy impact that these two generated – the first focusing on the crazy mess that was the Fyre Festival, and the latter on the rise and spectacular fall of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. In a sense, they respectively captured some of the excess of our times in utterly memorable fashion, and the catharsis of watching people who appeared to richly deserve a comeuppance get one.
“Bombshell” and “The Loudest Voice”
The only mixed movie-TV pairing on this list, these looks at the toxic culture at Fox News under Roger Ailes actually work best as complements to each other. Both are in some ways flawed (the Showtime miniseries more so), but together they provide significant insight into the executive knocked off his cable throne as the blend of infotainment and politics he championed for decades came to fruition in 2016, with the movie centering on the women who were instrumental in breaking the silence about his predatory behavior.
’The Farewell” and “Booksmart”
There were a lot of terrific smaller films in 2019, but few more enjoyable than these two – overcoming familiar-sounding premises with sharp writing and terrific performances. In the first, from writer-director Lulu Wang, a family hides a fatal diagnosis from the matriarch, staging a wedding as an excuse to say goodbye; and in Olivia Wilde’s directing debut, two teens decide to make up for lost time by having one wild night before graduation.
This is a good place, too, to mention two more movies from relatively new filmmakers, Trey Edward Shults and Melina Matsoukas, where the situations flow from a tragedy: “Waves,” a perspective-shifting family drama; and “Queen & Slim,” a romance set against the backdrop of a police stop of young African-Americans gone terribly wrong.
Director Sam Mendes’ war epic sits alone here, in part because there’s nothing else quite like it. Filmed in what looks like one long continuous shot, it’s a bracing view of trench warfare in World War I. The war to end all wars thus produces a movie that very nimbly ends the year.