As I look back on the 2019 year in cinema, two thoughts come to mind. The first is that wow, I saw a lot of movies last year! The first few months of the year saw the release of “Us,” the sophomore film by “Get Out” director Jordan Peele, of “Captain Marvel,” straight out of the MCU, and of “Glass,” a miscalculated sequel to both “Unbreakable” and “Split,” if you can imagine such a thing. Later, we got the sentimental “Toy Story 4,” the ribald, “Superbad”-esque comedy “Booksmart,” and a quiet little think piece called “Avengers: Endgame.”
The second half of the year gave us a few above-average horror films (“Doctor Sleep,” “The Lighthouse”) and a few below-average ones as well (“It Chapter Two,” “The Dead Don’t Die”). Finally, the end-of-year Oscar-bait bombardment gave us such diverse fare as “Richard Jewell,” a compelling true story from octogenarian director Clint Eastwood, “Uncut Gems,” an intense thriller of sensory overload starring a better-than-usual Adam Sandler, and a slate of Netflix titles given the briefest of Oscar-qualifying runs, such as “The Two Popes,” which posited an imagined meeting between Popes Benedict and Francis.
Phew! I try to avoid seeing bad movies at the theater, and enjoyed most of what I sought out. A few films disappointed me, like the mis-marketed Mr. Rogers movie “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” and the Brad Pitt-starring “Ad Astra.” Still, there was much to like, and I tried to catch up via Netflix or Amazon Prime on anything that I may have missed in the theater. Good thing for those reward points – lots of free popcorn!
Here are my picks for the Top Ten Films of 2019:
1) Parasite: I have only seen one other film by “Parasite” director and co-writer Bong Joon-ho, and that was 2013’s “Snowpiercer,” a post-apocalyptic thriller about the last humans on Earth, herded like cattle into a passenger train of haves and have-nots as it literally circumnavigates the globe. Like too many other sci-fi vehicles, it was heavy on ideas and heavier on plot holes. As such, it didn’t leave much of an impression. That being said, the film marked Joon-ho as a director to watch, and I’ll be damned if he didn’t set a ridiculously high bar on his latest cinematic go-round. The delirious black comedy “Parasite” is, like “Snowpiercer,” about people on the opposing fringes of society. This time, they are all residents of the same city, that overcrowded South Korean megalopolis, Seoul. The “haves” are the Park family, living in a modern mansion that is gated from the smoggy outside world. The “have-nots” are the Kim family, living in a basement apartment that is being invaded by stinkbugs and under threat of flooding. Watching how their lives intersect is a surprise not worth spoiling, except to say that you will continually be taken aback. The whole thing almost falls apart at the end, but a committed cast and a filmmaker in command of his craft keep every “i” dotted and every “t” crossed. Shout out to the film’s Oscar-worthy production design; the house was specially-built for the movie.
2) Marriage Story: It seems that Adam Driver is in everything these days. I was not a fan of HBO’s “Girls,” the show in which he got his start, and I think that new “Star Wars” trilogy, in which he plays Han and Leia’s tormented son, is just okay. Still, the man can act. He received his first Oscar nomination for 2018’s “BlacKkKlansman,” and earned another one for the Netflix-produced “Marriage Story,” playing one-half of a couple on the brink of divorce. As Charlie, the respected playwright-director who is a New Yorker first and a husband and father second, Driver breaks your heart. He is matched beat-for-beat by Scarlett Johansson, giving a career-best performance as Nicole, a Hollywood actress-turned-mother who has grown tired of her husband’s aloofness. (What a banner year for Kylo Ren and Black Widow, who starred in three movies apiece in 2019!) While parts of “Marriage Story” reminded me of 1979’s “Kramer vs. Kramer,” in which Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep played the bickering divorcees, writer-director Noah Baumbach’s film, loosely based on the disintegration of his own marriage (to actress Jennifer Jason Leigh), seems so much more honest and observant. I especially liked any scene involving the couple’s various lawyers (played by Laura Dern, Alan Alda, and Ray Liotta; all terrific), whose sole mission seems to be to take their clients to the financial cleaners.
3) 1917: Much has been written about the “gimmick” of “1917,” fancy camerawork and trick editing that make the film appear as a single, unbroken shot. (It isn’t, and you’ll have fun trying to spot the cuts.) Some say the choice, by “Skyfall” director Sam Mendes and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, is a distraction, while others – put me in this latter group – admired the work and applauded the filmmakers for always keeping the focus on the two main characters, a pair of WWI soldiers (newcomers George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) sent on a suicide mission to a nearby trench on orders to call off the next morning’s attack and save 1,600 potential lives. The film, which for the most part is a real-time drama about the horrors of war, with images that recall 1930’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” and an experimental mood that echoes 2017’s “Dunkirk,” doesn’t feature a lot of bloodshed per say. However, it reminds you that for the average front lines soldier, death lurks around every potential bend, and that violence can break out at any moment. The current Oscar front-runner for Best Picture, “1917” is an exhilarating cinematic experience worth seeing on the big screen.
4) The Irishman: Netflix had such a great 2018, with “Roma” winning several Oscars including Best Director, that it is somewhat remarkable to realize that they have bettered themselves in 2020. “The Irishman” joins the aforementioned “Marriage Story,” “The Two Popes,” and other movies that continue to make the online behemoth a force to be reckoned with. Although Martin Scorsese is, at 77, one of the oldest filmmakers still churning out regular cinematic content, he smartly embraces contemporary trends – streaming and de-aging technology, in the case of “The Irishman,” his longest film (3 hours, 29 minutes) and his best crime drama since “The Departed,” which won him his first Best Director statuette in 2007. Scorsese has a fighting chance at a companion Oscar for this ambitious production, which chronicles “I Heard You Paint Houses,” the supposed testimonial of aging hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), written by Sheeran’s attorney, Charles Brandt. The oft-refuted work of “non-fiction” documents Sheeran’s claim that he, under the guise of Pennsylvania mob boss Russell Bufalino (a restrained Joe Pesci), befriended, and later whacked, Teamster Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino at his most charismatic). Told almost entirely in flashback, this slow-burning crime drama features many of Scorsese’s usual genre trademarks, and demonstrates that he hasn’t lost his touch.
5) Little Women: Prior to 2019, there were at least four big or small-screen adaption of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel – one for each of its “Little Women,” you could say. So did anyone, besides screenwriter-director Greta Gerwig, really want another incarnation of the simple tale? It hardly matters; Gerwig’s fresh take on dated material is a miracle of cinema. Re-teaming with her “Lady Bird” star Saoirse Ronan (who plays Jo, second-oldest of the March sisters and the film’s protagonist), Gerwig tells of a quartet of female siblings who, while Laura Dern’s Marmee volunteers as a wartime nurse and Bob Odenkirk’s Father March is serving in the Civil War, quarrel over whether or not it’s better to marry rich or marry at all, over whether young Beth (Eliza Scanlen) has truly beaten scarlet fever, and over whether one should write, travel, or have children. Heady stuff when the book was published in 1868, it might feel silly by today’s standards if not for the “Pulp Fiction”-ized screenplay, which shuffles the chronology of key events. Kudos also to the sumptuous period detail, and to the lively performances by Ronan and Florence Pugh, who plays the headstrong Amy. (The fourth, and oldest, March sister, Beth, is played by Emma Watson, and she never quite manages to make the character her own – my only nitpick with a film that was otherwise the most pleasant surprise of 2019.)
6) Midsommar: In past years, I compiled a five-part ranking of the Top 50 Horror Movies. Were that list to be revised today, it is likely that “Hereditary” director Ari Aster’s sophomore feature, the engrossing “Midsommar,” would surely earn a place in the top 30. Taking place almost entirely in daylight (surely a genre first), the Swedish-spelled title refers to a summertime harvest festival in rural Sweden, where there is almost 24 hours of daylight, where nubile young women come of age while seniors put a decidedly abrupt end to the ugly spectacle of aging, and where disbelieving foreigners learn, to their general peril, what it means when their holistic holiday turns out to be something out of “The Wicker Man,” only much more horrifying and minus any overacting by Nicolas Cage. Florence Pugh, who plays the film’s surviving female (a long-running genre trope) would surely be a contender for best scream queen, if she hadn’t already moved on to costume dramas like “Little Women” or to action films like the upcoming “Black Widow.” And Pugh also gets my award for best on-screen wailing.
7) Avengers: Endgame: What can be said about the highest-grossing movie of all time? Quite a lot…especially when said movie is as much sheer fun as “Avengers: Endgame.” The ultimate definition of an event movie, “Endgame” brings 22 Marvel big screen adventures – most of them beloved – to an immensely-satisfying conclusion. Audiences gasped at the end of the previous entry, “Infinity War,” as Thanos (an excellent Josh Brolin) literally snapped half of the universe’s population out of existence. Among the vaporized: Black Panther, Scarlet Witch, Doctor Strange, and Spider-Man. The survivors, led by a stoic Captain America (Chris Evans), a plus-sized Thor (Chris Hemsworth), a stalwart Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), a bespectacled Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and a domesticated Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), wrestle time to undo the past in a series of amusing set pieces with unexpected cameos and Easter eggs galore. Okay, so the time travel science doesn’t work, and the Russo Brothers still can’t direct a coherent action sequence. It barely matters. “Endgame” is a delight. Its characters will be missed.
8) One Child Nation: For the second time in a row, the year’s best documentary deals, in part, with the ugly side of the business of adoption. Last year, “Three Perfect Strangers” chronicled an uneasy reunion of male triplets, separated at birth by a disingenuous New York adoption agency. This year, Amazon’s “One Child Nation” chronicles the blow-back from China’s 36-year One Child Policy, including the almost-carnivorous for-profit adoption black market, in which opportunists, literally starving, “rescue” abandoned Chinese babies, most of them girls, and sell them to adoption agencies, with many of the now-grown girls having little interest in knowing where they came from. It gets worse, of course: Chinese-born filmmaker Nanfu Wang returns to her motherland as an adult with a child of her own, and interviews, guerilla-style, small town officials responsible for reinforcing omnipresent small-families-are-best propaganda, as well as former midwives, including one damned woman who confesses to having performed over 50,000 forced sterilizations and abortions. Few documentaries are truly multi-sided, and I can’t help but wonder how much different Wang’s film would be had the modern-day Chinese government – which now promotes “two child families” – cooperated in the making of this harrowing film, or if Wang had been able to trace the effects of the One Child Policy in big cities as well as small towns. Still, this is an important film about bad policymaking and the lack of individual accountability in a flawed, authoritarian system of government, and it is engrossing to watch.
9) Pain and Glory: This late-career triumph for director Pedro Almodóvar and actor Antonio Banderas is an intimate and moving reflection on the life of an aging filmmaker (Banderas, whose Salvador Mallo is a thinly-veiled alter ego of Almodóvar himself) whose health is failing and whose world is rocked by a pair of unplanned reunions – those of a long-ago star (Asier Etxeandia) in one of Salvador’s most acclaimed films, who was and still is a functional drug addict; and of his one-time gay lover (Leonardo Sbaraglia), a tender man who has since embraced heterosexuality. Always on Salvador’s mind is his late mother, a vibrant spirit played by Julieta Serrano as an old widow and by Almodóvar regular Penélope Cruz as a young woman. Sexuality and motherhood are recurring themes in most of Almodóvar’s work; “Pain and Glory” is no different in that regard, except that it seems like the work of a director looking back on it all, and wanting to leave a capstone masterpiece for us. I hope this isn’t the director’s last film; it may be his best.
10) Doctor Sleep: From one of my favorite Stephen King novels comes one of his best big screen adaptations, ably translated by “Gerald’s Game” director Mike Flanagan. Though a notable box office bomb (in my opinion because it was over-promoted as a direct sequel to “The Shining,” which audiences probably didn’t want if it didn’t involve Kubrick and Nicholson), there is much to like in this depiction of an adult Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor), who put his “Shining” demons at bay by following in his late father’s footsteps as a bottomed-out alcoholic. Torrance finds his chance at redemption when he learns that young Abra (Kyleigh Curran), whose own shine is much brighter than his, is a target of the True Knot, a cabal of vampires who feed on the shining, rather than on blood. Led by the vengeful Rose the Hat (a terrifying Rebecca Ferguson), the True Knot will stop at nothing. I smell a confrontation at the Overlook Hotel, how ‘bout you? Apologies if I gave away too much. There are quiet moments removed from the greater story that I liked as well, including two moving scenes involving Dan, now a hospice orderly, helping dying patients pass peacefully from this world. All in all, a solid bridging of King’s 2013 novel and Kubrick’s 1980 film.
A few sentences about the runners up:
11) Dark Waters: Two parts “The Insider,” two parts “Erin Brockovich,” and one part “All the President’s Men,” this ripped-from-the-headlines legal drama is, like each of those aforementioned films, based on actual events. In this case, Cincinnati lawyer Robert Bilott, who just made partner at his firm for profitably defending chemical companies, follows his conscience by investigating claims by a distant family acquaintance that Dupont is poisoning the water supply of working-class Parkersburg, West Virginia. Alienating himself from colleagues and risking his marriage (and possibly his life, as his paranoia slowly grows), Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) spends several decades bringing Dupont to trial. “Dark Waters” isn’t the most exciting film – and “Far from Heaven” director Todd Haynes seems an odd choice to be at the helm – but the film flirts with greatness, and the montage during which Bilott reveals the extent of Dupont’s wrongdoing is truly horrifying. Ignore the Anne Hathaway Factor and see this anyway; Ruffalo’s inward performance is arguably the best work of his career.
12) Us: Jordan Peele, who won a screenwriting Oscar for his scathing socio-horror commentary “Get Out,” had big shoes to fill for his follow-up. With the highly original “Us,” he succeeds admirably. “12 Years a Slave” Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o stars – and frankly should’ve won a second Oscar, yet didn’t even score a nomination – in tricky dual roles as Adelaide, a nervous wife and mother on a beachfront California vacation, and as Red, her violent, scissors-wielding dopplegänger. You must, to some extent, suspend disbelief to swallow the twist this time around, but even if you don’t, “Us” is a terrifying ride – much scarier than “Get Out.”
13) Ford v Ferrari: This rousing tale from “Walk the Line” and “Logan” director James Mangold follows the competitive drive of the Ford Motor Company which, after being turned down in its quest to purchases the ailing Ferrari, decides to build a race car so fast that it will beat Ferrari in the 24 Hours of Le Mans race of 1966. Matt Damon plays the designer, one-time racer Carroll Shelby, and Christian Bale plays the driver, hot-tempered Ken Miles, as a combustible pair of oil-and-water alphas who should be working together rather than apart.
14) Knives Out: Eat your heart out, Agatha Christie. Filmmaker Rian Johnson earned raves for his 2012 time travel tale “Looper,” and vitriol for 2017’s “The Last Jedi,” so no one quite knew what to expect with “Knives Out,” Johnson’s lively whodunit that received a ridiculous amount of advertising leading up to its Thanksgiving Day release. All in all, it’s a hoot, anchored by Ana de Armas in a star-marking turn as the knows-more-than-she-lets-on nurse to a dead patriarch (Christopher Plummer). De Armas’s Marta Cabrera matches wits with Daniel Craig, whose sleuth, Benoit Blanc, is a riotous, Kentucky-fried take on the great Hercule Poirot.
15) Jojo Rabbit: New Zealand director Taika Waititi was the best thing to happen to Marvel’s “Thor” franchise. Waititi and star Chris Hemsworth recognized the cheesiness of the whole thing, and delivered a comedic take for the second sequel, “Thor: Ragnarok,” reinvigorating the series and resulting in Hemsworth’s most relaxed performance in the role. For his follow-up, Waititi chose to adapt the 2004 novel “Caging Skies,” by Christine Leunens, about a young Hitler Youth lad who slowly becomes friends with the Jewish girl that his Resistance mother is hiding behind a false wall of their Vienna home (Berlin in the film). Affecting turns by Roman Griffin Davis as young Jojo, Scarlett Johansson as mom Rosie, Thomasin McKenzie as the Jewish Elsa, and Sam Rockwell as a sympathetic German officer, with Waititi himself pitching in comic support as the buffoonish Hitler of Jojo’s imagination.
16) The Lighthouse: Although “The Lighthouse,” the second feature of Robert Eggers, director of 2015’s excellent “The Witch,” is classified as a horror movie, the reality is that this wholly original black-and-white entry defies easy genre classification. Sure, there is something otherworldly in the visions of a mermaid, as seen by apprentice lighthouse “wickie” Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) in a series of vivid dreams. And sure, there may be a squid-like creature living in the upper reaches of the lighthouse, where only master lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) dares to go. And sure, the seagulls nesting on the tiny lighthouse island are a menace straight out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. And sure, the isolation is enough to drive both men mad. But what, really, is going on here? Is it a surreal nightmare, or a comedy of errors?
17) Once upon a Time in…Hollywood: What can I say about a movie that garnered 10 Oscar nominations, that is by one of my favorite directors, and that is in a three-way race for the top prize, yet that I didn’t really like upon first viewing? Focus on the positives, I guess. And for all of “Once upon a Time…in Hollywood’s” problems – if nothing else, Tarantino needs a new editor – it does capture the zeitgeist of Hollywood’s late golden age…just before the sunset. I will say that Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt do some of their best work in this film, as aging western star Rick Dalton and stunt double/errand boy Cliff Booth. Likewise, Margot Robbie, as the late Sharon Tate, is simply luminous. We all know what happened to Tate (though the film treats things differently, in a polarizing ending that I personally didn’t care for), and it is for that reason that Tarantino didn’t give Robbie much dialogue – she really is like something from a more innocent time.
18) Dolemite is My Name: Yet another Netflix triumph, this very funny biopic follows the efforts of pudgy, struggling LA comic Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy, in his best performance since 2006’s “Dreamgirls”) to revitalize his career by first, telling raunchy, sexist, “in-character” jokes as the pimp-like Dolemite, and second, filming a movie about Dolemite’s adventures. Moore hires Wesley Snipes to direct and the scene-stealing Da’Vine Joy Randolph to co-star, and the trio makes blaxploitation movie history.
19) Motherless Brooklyn: Edward Norton stars and directs this passion project, based on Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel, and changes the setting from 1990’s NYC to the 1950’s instead, hoping to make a sort of “East Coast ‘Chinatown.’” Norton plays the title character, a orphan-turned-gumshoe with Tourette’s who tries to track down his boss’s (Bruce Willis) killer and encounters a whole borough’s worth of corruption and greed. The movie isn’t perfect – the plot is hard to follow, and Willis mails in his performance – but it captures the spirit and the location of a gentrified, mid-century Big Apple. And Norton, as always, is mesmerizing to watch.
20) Harriet: I knew that Harriet Tubman, born Araminta “Minty” Ross, rescued some 70 enslaved people as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, bringing them north from Maryland to Philadelphia and, later, all the way to Canada. What I didn’t know was that Tubman, who had already earned her freedom, returned to free her remaining family members, and that she later commanded a Union army in its own mission to rescue fleeing slaves. The story is a stirring one, and “Eve’s Bayou” director Kasi Lemmons tells it in a family-friendly way. As Tubman, Oscar nominee Cynthia Erivo delivers an intense performance. Still, while it’s damning that this is only the first movie ever made about Tubman, I can’t help but wish it dug a bit deeper into the slave experience.
So that’s it! You can expect a follow-up post in two weeks in which I predict this year’s Oscar winners. In the meantime, what are you favorite films from 2019? Do you think I left any contenders off the list?