Movies are great!
I’m just going to cut right to the chase, because you don’t need to read yet another essay on the year in film, especially from me, and especially in January.
I mean, I could write about how 2019 might have been, pound for pound, the best movie year of the decade (an idea I heard co-signed on The Big Picture podcast), or say something generally about mega franchise climaxes like Avengers: Endgame or Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (only one of which was genuinely successful). I could talk about the ever-shifting cinematic landscape where great auteurs like Martin Scorsese and Noah Baumbach are turning to Netflix for financing (and the meme-ability that comes with it), or how the most fun I had in a theater was the knife-throwing scene in John Wick 3. Or I could just gesture at those ideas and move on, because you get it and the world is such a mess right now we should just take our pleasures where we can.
In any case, I had an especially devilish time cutting this list down to ten. Here are five that just missed out:
- The Two Popes: Poignant and surprisingly funny, Fernando Meirelles’ papal drama features a pair of acting titans (Anthony Hopkins and a sublime Jonathan Pryce) playing expert-level verbal tennis. It floats on divine grace like a feather in the wind.
- A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: Tom Hanks is perfect, but not the film’s only virtue; Marielle Heller approaches the material with uncommon grace and satisfying eccentricity. Matthew Rhys balances Hanks without bluster or artifice.
- Ford vs. Ferrari: Both as a dad movie and a paean to hardworking craftsmen, James Mangold’s film delivers old-school excitement. Christian Bale is fully uncorked, and Matt Damon wins just by not being blown off the screen.
- The Farewell: The new Golden Globe winner, Awkwafina, is terrific in Lulu Wang’s family dramedy; it takes a culturally-specific premise — keeping your grandmother’s own illness from her — and makes it universal with warmth and sincerity.
- Booksmart: Olivia Wilde’s debut is one of the great teen comedies of our age. It’s terrifically funny, well-paced, painfully real, and Billie Lourde steals every scene she’s in as a space cadet who seemingly pops up everywhere at once.
So with apologies to A Hidden Life, The Souvenir, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Pain and Glory, and everything else I didn’t get to see before now, onward.
10. Uncut Gems
Directed by Benny & Josh Safdie
From my review: The experience of watching Uncut Gems is like one of those old carnival rides where the floor drops out and you’re pressed against the wall by centrifugal force, spinning until you vomit. The Safdie Brothers’ jittery, grimy, disorienting fourth feature is cinematic crack, dragging you down in the wake of Howard Ratner’s (Adam Sandler) self-destructive spiral; you’re powerless to intervene as he makes bad choice after bad choice, a swirling vortex of neediness that nothing — not even his perpetual gambler’s high — can fill.
The more the walls close in, the harder Uncut Gems is to watch, and the harder it is to stop watching. That’s in huge part due to Sandler, bringing every ounce of his trademark charismatic sociopathy to bear in his customary twice-a-decade reminder that he can really act when he wants to. The supporting cast is a pitch-perfect mix of journeymen and non-actors, especially Kevin Garnett — the best performance by and NBA player since Ray Allen in He Got Game.
9. Ad Astra
Directed by James Gray
From my review: The melancholy tenor of Ad Astra should not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with James Gray’s work, but it’s far more than a celestial Apocalypse Now with daddy issues; Gray and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema have created a truly beautiful film, lingering on meditative moments to bask in its visuals. This goes hand-in-hand with Brad Pitt’s understated performance, effective at making you focus on his eyes, and his stillness, instead of the actor’s famous charisma.
Moreover, it’s impossible not to watch the film without pondering its deeper themes. While Ad Astra isn’t without its thrilling action beats (moon pirates!), it’s the spiritual dimensions that linger. If we’re truly alone in the universe, is humankind doomed to the same self-defeating cycles? How do you maintain your sense of wonder when we’ve put an Applebee’s on the moon? When McBride suggests later that “We’re all we’ve got,” it’s not just a call to unity as humankind continues to scrabble for resources, but to the rueful desire for meaning, and something beyond ourselves, that makes us uniquely human.
8. The Irishman
Directed by Martin Scorsese
From my review: As depicted on screen, the life and career of mob hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is one of dull predictability; he falls in with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), he takes on assignments, accrues political power through his friendship with Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), and then ultimately has to do his motormouthed friend in in a scene as haphazard as it is brutal. And yet, the more I thought about it, I realized that was kind of the point. Yes, we’ve seen Scorsese do this material before, but unlike the flash and exhilaration of Goodfellas and Mean Streets, there is no glamour to be found in The Irishman.
Scorsese is vicariously looking back on his own career, the stories he’s chosen to tell, and how he’s chosen to tell them; the film’s opening steadicam isn’t gliding through the Copa, but a retirement center. The film’s final hour, centering on the Hoffa hit and its aftermath, is some of the director’s most subdued work; the pervading sense of inevitability isn’t accompanied by dread, but melancholy. And the closing image is an inversion of The Godfather, a powerful commentary on a genre finally stripped of its cinematic artifice.
7. The Lighthouse
Directed by Robert Eggers
From my review: The Lighthouse, frankly, rules. It’s a whirlpool of Melville, Beckett, Freud, and Greek myth featuring two acclaimed actors operating at the peak of their powers. As the two lighthouse keepers slowly driving each other insane, Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson deliver briny monologues with gale force. Eggers, no stranger to historical chillers after the success of his debut The Witch, films The Lighthouse in sumptuous black and white and in the old Academy aspect ratio; Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography, inspired by German Expressionism, psychologically transports you before a single word of 19th-century dialogue is uttered.
Every time I thought I knew where the story was going, it would zag in a different direction, until I simply gave up guessing and let myself get pulled into its wake. The Lighthouse is pure cinema, dazzling and fanatically detailed; challenging and hysterical in both senses of the word. Though his protagonists resemble Proteus and Prometheus, Eggers himself could be Ovid, the Roman poet who gave popular voice to those figures and was himself exiled to the edge of civilization on the Black Sea: “In our play,” he wrote in Amores, “we reveal what kind of people we are.”
6. Knives Out
Directed by Rian Johnson
From my review: The highest compliment that I can give Knives Out is that it gives you exactly what you want — an entertaining, Agatha Christie-inspired, drawing room whodunnit — in an entirely unexpected fashion. There’s an exceptional Thomas Pynchon joke, for example. And a shocking amount of vomit. But at no point does Rian Johnson’s immaculately constructed script seek to hoodwink the audience; as our Poirot stand-in, Benoit Blanc (a delightful Daniel Craig) can attest, all of the pieces are there from the very beginning, and the joy comes from watching them unexpectedly snap together.
It’s also through Blanc’s relationship with caregiver Marta (Ana de Armas) that we see that Johnson has more on his mind than just delivering a crackerjack mystery; the Thrombeys are divided between those who would make her family’s immigration status a plot point while celebrating her as “one of the good ones,” and those who think themselves open-minded but are just as selfish when the chips are down. It isn’t long before Knives Out becomes a story about class and privilege, which dovetails with Blanc’s dogged gumshoe work in surprising and satisfying ways. It’d be a crime to reveal more, but the film’s final shot is an all-timer. It’s not #1 on this list, but it’s going to be my most re-watched.
Directed by Sam Mendes
The mightiest flex in a year of mighty flexes, Sam Mendes’s “one-shot” war epic is muscular, capital-F Filmmaking. It left me totally gobsmacked by the level of craft on screen: Dennis Fassner’s production design, the absorbing sound mix, the practical effects; Thomas Newman’s eerie, powerful score (my favorite of the year, right under the wire) Did I play “spot the edit?” Of course I did, and I had fun doing it, but at no point did that take me out of the story — rather, it reinforced what an impressive achievement 1917 is, and had me mentally applauding the end of each thrilling sequence and on tenterhooks for what Mendes and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins would throw at me next. I’m still not sure how they pulled some of it off (though this featurette is great).
Dedicated to Mendes’s grandfather and based on stories he told, 1917′s script (co-written by Krysty Wilson-Cairns) is straightforward: Two young soldiers, played by George McKay and Game of Thrones’s Dean-Charles Chapman, must traverse No Man’s Land before dawn to stop an attack that will lead to the deaths of 1,600 men. The pair encounter one danger after another and a parade of esteemed UK/Irish actors, including Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Richard Madden, and a delightful Andrew Scott. But the film largely belongs to 27-year-old George MacKay as Lance Corporal Schofield: all jangled nerves and goggle eyes, he’s the embodiment of perseverance in the face of abject terror, honoring the memory of the many thousands of men thrown senselessly into World War I’s meat grinder. Mendes runs MacKay and Chapman ragged, quite literally, with Deakins’s camera bearing an ever-floating witness. I can acknowledge that it’s not the deepest or most developed screenplay, but as pure visual storytelling, it’s the stuff of legend.
4. Little Women
Directed by Greta Gerwig
From my review: There is so much love in this film, both in its making and on screen. It’s moving, funny, and brilliantly structured, bifurcating its source material so the past is constantly reinforcing the present and vice versa, making poignant visual and thematic connections like reliving your own memories. I bet that when I see it a second time, the power of Gerwig’s screenplay will only be amplified. Saoirse Ronan, continuing her remarkable partnership with Gerwig, shines as the headstrong writer Jo, who wants far more out of life than romance. Florence Pugh is both hilarious and devastating as Amy, the froufrou-loving artist who forms the other point of the triangle with Timothee Chalamet’s Laurie, the charismatic boy next door with the impossible bone structure. That’s only three, but every performance in the ensemble is note-perfect.
The struggles of the March sisters in 1860-70s Connecticut may seem small, but great drama has never been inhibited by lack of scale. By playing both the teenaged and adult versions of their characters, Gerwig’s talented cast is able to shade in a lifetime of sisterly shorthand and shared experience, and I was never once confused about where (or when) we were thanks to subtle color cues from cinematographer Yorick Le Saux. But Gerwig isn’t satisfied with doing only an exceptional adaptation; the film’s cubist ending, without giving it away, is both true to the novel and to Alcott’s original planned conclusion — an innovative piece of sleight-of-hand that reframes everything that came before by transferring, rather than replacing, Jo’s true desire. “It’s not girl gets boy,” Gerwig has said in interviews. “It’s girl gets book.”
3. Marriage Story
Directed by Noah Baumbach
From my review: Unlike 1980 Best Picture Winner Kramer vs. Kramer, or Baumbach’s own The Squid and the Whale, Marriage Story takes a painfully familiar topic to audiences — Divorce — and dramatizes it on screen in a way we haven’t really seen before: As a confounding swamp to be marched through at swordpoint. There are many moments where theater director Charlie (Adam Driver) and actor Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) could have listened, apologized, changed, and kept their marriage together. Even when they’re screaming at each other things they can’t take back, it’s not really a lost cause; it just feels like one, and that’s enough to change their lives forever.
It’s an unsparing screenplay from Baumbach, who as ever pulls from his own life as well as the lives of his cast: Johansson was going through her own divorce on the eve of production; Driver’s parents separated when he was a child. Together they bring extraordinary verisimilitude to career-best work. Johansson brilliantly delivers a single-take monologue where she walks her shark-like lawyer (Laura Dern) through a life story that never really felt like her own. Driver, though, solidifies his status as one of the best, if not the best, actors of his generation — it’s a unique physical performance and a devastating emotional one, lived-in and fraying, but also comic, and even musical (the Sondheim performance). I expect that many Oscar voters will see themselves in him, accurately or not, and I sorely hope they reward him accordingly.
2. Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
From my review: Like many, I didn’t initially warm to the idea of Tarantino incorporating the Manson murders into a gauzy study of Hollywood has-beens and almost-weres, but I was equally relieved to find that Once Upon isn’t exploitative; instead, it’s a melancholy reverie on finding contentment in a world losing its grip. I could even describe its final moments as “moving,” which is not a word I’ve ever used to describe a Tarantino film. That’s largely due to Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate, centered in a remarkable scene where we see her soak in the audience’s delighted response to her performance in The Wrecking Crew. With great efficiency, Tarantino and Robbie show us that Tate mattered as a human being — for far more than the manner of her death — and here represents the (extremely relative) innocence of the time that was to be cruelly stamped out.
And then there’s Rick Dalton, a TV Western actor coming to grips with being washed up, and Tarantino gives a sensational Leonardo DiCaprio scene after scene of bringing himself back from the brink of destruction. It might just be my favorite LDC performance, full stop, from his trailer tirade to his rewarding chemistry with an effortlessly languid Brad Pitt. Most of all, the film is a loving, fanatically-detailed recreation of a specific point in time. Tarantino’s direction encourages you to immerse yourself, languidly paced up until the shockingly violent (and uncomfortably funny) climax when the Tarantino of old comes out to play. Hollywood is not my favorite Tarantino, but it’s the most Tarantino, and perhaps the richest text. The first time I saw it, I thought it was great. The second time, it rose to masterpiece.
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
I should still refrain from going into too much detail lest you have not been able to see Bong Joon-ho’s late capitalism magnum opus (it’s out on disc and digital at the end of the month!); as I’ve written before, Parasite works best if you go into it knowing as little as possible. But the film also earned a spot on my Best Films of the Decade list and has a legitimate shot at Best Picture next month, so a fuller accounting is due. Nothing else came close to the same level of gonzo cinema, anyway. A masterclass of composition, staging, and plotting, Bong (with co-writer Jin Won-han and cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo) shifts genres like the cunning Kims shift personas, beginning as a deeply funny heist film before rolling like a boulder down a mountain toward its violent climax.
It’s really a film about eyelines, both literally and metaphorically — how the characters look up, or down, on each other informs the film’s dark vision of class warfare, and no one gets out clean. It also demands repeat viewings to pick up on all the clues dropped throughout the film’s first half. Bong’s exceptional cast — especially Song Kang-ho, Park So-dam, and Jo Yeo-jeong — tears into each slippery performance with gusto and remarkable shading; the disadvantaged Kims aren’t straight-up heroes any more than the wealthy but aloof Parks are villains, but as a film Parasite is as incisive and direct as a scalpel. As Bong himself said when it won the Golden Globe for foreign language film, “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” He’s as correct as he is modest. This is the second year running a foreign film has topped my list (after 2018’s Roma), and I know I can be even more diligent in seeking out these works of art. Join me?