Here we are: a presentation of the top ten movies of 2019! First things first: this was not a great year for blockbuster filmmaking. I’ve only got one franchise picture on my official list, and just about every sequel, soft-reboot or spin-off I saw in theaters was disappointing. As usual, the big studios need to do better, but looking ahead at the 2020 release slate, I can’t say I’m optimistic.
Alas, there are also a few movies I wasn’t able to make time for this year. I’ll be catching up with “Waves,” “A Hidden Life,” “Gemini Man” and “1917” in the coming weeks—though I doubt any will unseat my number 10 pick (we’ll see though, I could wind up issuing a retraction of my own arbitrary rankings). I don’t quite feel I have the capacity to assess documentaries right now, so don’t expect to see any down below (although “Amazing Grace” rocks).
And as always, I found myself enamored with more than just 10 movies this year. It seems wrong to omit a film as monumental and final as Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” from any best of the year list, so it’s an obvious honorable mention. The same goes for “Hustlers,” a raucous and all-together awesome, subversive take on weaponized femininity. Of equal, pure entertainment value is “Knives Out,” a forward thinking whodunit chock-full of great performances from its all-star cast, along with just being a blast.
Oh boy, I probably should have just made a top 15. “Booksmart,” obviously, rules, but I’m also partial to Joanna Hogg’s coming-of-age piece “The Souvenir.” “Toy Story 4” was far more moving than it had any right being. Finally, “The Farewell” was a bittersweet exploration of what holding onto tradition actually looks like. If I had to narrow down to a single honorable mention, I’d pick Lulu Wang’s breakout, for sure. Anyway, onto the list!
10. “Little Women”
Greta Gerwig’s radical retelling of Louisa May Alcott’s 150-year-old novel deftly examines the possibility of love in a stifling, patriarchal, capitalist society. Gerwig confidently rearranges her source material, cutting between time periods and continents with ease, trusting her viewers to keep up. Her ambition pays off: this adaptation succeeds, thanks in no small part to Gerwig’s performers. Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh shine as Jo and Amy March—this is arguably the most crowd-pleasing movie of the year.
I woke up at five a.m. the morning after I saw “Us.” Jordan Peele’s blatantly pessimistic follow-up to “Get Out” is alarming, its horror bleeding from its stubborn refusal to clarify many of its central mysteries. Instead, what’s clear is that Peele wants his viewers to take a good, hard look at themselves—as Jason (Evan Alex) puts it, “when you point a finger at someone else, you have three pointing back at you.” But “Us” is so much more than an introspective prompt, also the canvas for a spectacular performance from Lupita Nyong’o. Where does Jordan Peele go from here?
8. “Avengers: Endgame”
In a year when multiple major geek tent-poles wrapped up massive storylines in disappointment (“Star Wars,” “Game of Thrones”), only one finale didn’t just satisfy, but actually exceeded expectations. With an enormous, three-hour runtime, “Avengers: Endgame” is a self-indulgent, and—between the many scenes of characters contemplating their failures—frequently hilarious conclusion to this phase of the Marvel meta-narrative. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a good time heist, and watching Captain America pick up Thor’s hammer still gets my little nerd heart racing.
7. “Uncut Gems”
“This is me. This is how I win.” Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is so sleazy that you can practically feel his grease oozing off-of one of his many close-ups and onto the screen. “Uncut Gems” directors Josh and Benny Safdie are interested in stress, in people who just can’t quit (far after they should’ve), but here, their aesthetic reaches a new peak. This movie has such a sense of texture, bolstered in no small part by its quality ensemble. But the at the center—probably the cause—of all the chaos is the sandman himself, turning in his best performance in more than a decade. It won’t relax you, no, but “Uncut Gems” is a deliriously entertaining ode to jumping out of the frying pan, and into the fire.
6. “Marriage Story”
There are moments in “Marriage Story” that will stick with me for years. The opening montages, in which writer/director Noah Baumbach efficiently captures the grand tragedy a breakup feels like in less than ten minutes. The argument to end all arguments. Charlie (Adam Driver), belting out “Being Alive.” Like my prior pick, it’s another intense look at a man who’s the architect of his own misery. But Baumbach’s empathy keeps proceedings humane, crafting a remarkable film in the process.
This is toxic Jewish masculinity, dismantled from the inside out. Israeli writer/director Nadav Lapid makes no compromises in his third feature, the occasionally brutal, hyper-specific “Synonyms.” First-time actor Tom Mercier stars as Yoav, a young ex-pat, who migrates to Paris in an attempt to rewrite all he’s been taught. Lapid frames everything through Yoav’s (somewhat narrow) perspective, in kinetic, focused takes. If we can accept who we are, can we also reject that person? “Synonyms” didn’t make it into many theaters, but you should seek it out when it’s released on streaming platforms early next year.
I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but these days, the world is a bit sh*t. It frequently feels like instead of progressing forward, we’re stuck, facing ideologies and problems we should’ve moved past by now. Christian Petzold’s “Transit” makes this dissonance literal. Protagonist Georg (Franz Rogowski) stumbles through an occupied Europe, a period that looks all-too-similar to today. Facism, it seems, can separate those it targets from their country, their present and even themselves. But “Transit” never preaches at its viewers—rather, it stages a terrifying, daring, expressionist alternative to illustrate its pressing point.
3. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”
Love is a vulnerable experience. To love is to really look. To be loved is to be seen. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” hasn’t really released yet—consider this an advance recommendation (distributor Neon is planning to put “Portrait” in theaters nationwide this coming Valentine’s Day, but the film ran in New York and L.A. for a week in December). It’s a slow burn, as we follow Marianne (Noemie Merlant), who’s been tasked with secretly painting Helouise (Adele Haenel), a rebellious noblewoman. A breathtaking look at romance under strangling circumstances, this perfectly-paced piece of cinema should be seen, just as it should be appreciated. Like any passionate affair, I can’t promise it won’t hurt when it ends. Or, put it this way: this film will break your heart.
2. “Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood”
“Baby, baby, baby, you’re out of time.” “Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood” is the type of movie I didn’t know Quentin Tarantino had in him. On paper, it follows the provocations the auteur has been spitting out for years: historical revisionism, anchored by big stars. Instead, “Hollywood” is a slow, mature exploration of an anxious guy past his prime (Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton), facing a brave new world in which he doesn’t belong. On the one hand, you need a certain level of investment in Tarantino to extract all the meaning from “Once Upon a Time.” But this is exactly the type of movie we should hope to see from our self-obsessed, “problematic” artists, one that reckons with itself, its legacy and its obsolescence. For the first time since “Inglorious Basterds,” Tarantino’s refusal to pander has yielded a truly valuable result.
“Parasite” lives its values: it’s got something for everyone. Director Bong Joon-Ho’s rollercoaster of class commentary transcends any and all genre boundaries and barriers, constantly mutating into a wild, unforgettable ride. This is the rare movie that’s as entertaining as it is provocative, an accessible explication of a system that gets everyone’s hands dirty. Bong’s impeccable staging (and the consistently quality performances of his actors) feed into something that’s totally unpredictable, yet wholly cohesive. We’ll be talking about it for years. To put it quite simply: if you haven’t seen “Parasite” yet, what are you doing?