Looking back, 2019 was a year in which Netflix followed up the history-making performance of “Roma” at the Oscars with the release of Martin Scorsese’s mega-budget “The Irishman,” when Marvel’s “Avengers: Endgame” broke box office records while DC’s divisive “Joker” spin-off ignited a firestorm of debate, and where rival streaming services Disney Plus and Apple TV Plus further challenged our fundamental concept of what constitutes a motion picture.
Such definitions may be in flux, but the offerings themselves — from studio blockbusters to intimate independents to straight-to-streaming novelties — give film critics and moviegoers alike reason to be optimistic. While Scorsese and Marvel honcho Kevin Feige quite publicly disagreed about what defines a cinematic experience, audiences have more avenues than ever to experience cinema.
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Variety reviewed nearly 1,000 new releases this year, from which chief critics Peter Debruge and Owen Gleiberman picked their favorites among the films that opened in U.S. theaters. (Click here to read Owen Gleiberman’s list.)
Every family in America has a story worth telling, but never has a filmmaker captured the dreams and disappointments of two teenage siblings quite so audaciously as Trey Edward Shults and his gifted ensemble. Kelvin Harrison Jr. (brilliantly inscrutable in Sundance drama “Luce”) reveals the enormous pressures put on athletes of color, Sterling K. Brown embodies the self-made father who wills his son to have even greater opportunities, Renée Elise Goldsberry plays a stepmother fighting to keep the family together, and astonishing newcomer Taylor Russell emerges as the soul of the film. Through an electrifying, immersive mix of music and camerawork, “Waves” boldly expands the cinematic medium, doing something revolutionary about midway through. Roll with it, and the experience will transform how you see the world.
At age 70, Spanish provocateur Pedro Almodóvar still manages to surprise, enlisting longtime collaborator Antonio Banderas (with whom he lost contact for nearly 20 years) to play a disarmingly tender, loosely fictionalized version of himself in what amounts to the director’s most personal film yet. Early on, Almodóvar shares the fact he suffers from a litany of maladies, an ultra-vulnerable revelation that functions almost like a second “coming out” for the pioneering queer auteur, offering an intriguing new key by which to reconsider his entire oeuvre. If that doesn’t seem so radical, just wait till you see how he deals with drug use (casually), aging (candidly), and the childhood origins of his sexual identity (almost Oedipally). Although many adore “All About My Mother”-era Almodóvar, I consider this piercing “all about Pedro” portrait to be his masterpiece.
How many times have we seen Hollywood take aim at the problem of drug trafficking in Colombia without considering the bias implicit in that depiction? Now, in what amounts to the flip side of Netflix’s sensationalistic “Narcos” series, Oscar-nominated “Embrace of the Serpent” director Ciro Guerra (who shares credit with creative partner Cristina Gallego) dramatizes how foreign demand for marijuana ravaged the country’s indigenous population. While the film’s drug trafficking scenes are as stunning as anything “Scarface” or Scorsese could muster, what really distinguishes this visionary epic — a marvel of ethnographic filmmaking — is its attention to the native customs, superstitions, and symbols of the Wayúu people, whose entire way of life was threatened by what came to be known as “la Bonanza Marimbera.”
Debut films so often deal with the callow concerns of youth: childhood friendships, coming of age, first loves. Not this one. A soulful cinephile who waited until his mid-50s before undertaking his first narrative feature, Kent Jones delivers a movie of profound emotional maturity. At first glance, 70-ish Diane (played by Mary Kay Place) appears to be some kind of saint: She fusses over her drug-addicted son, visits ailing friends and relatives in hospital, volunteers at a meal center for the homeless. But Diane’s motives are far more complicated, a kind of self-inflicted penance for what she describes as “my one terrible sin.” This beautifully understated indie explores the idea of living with regret — and the cruel irony of outliving our loved ones.
Through some massive freak coincidence, this year brought the final chapters of several major film franchises: Marvel’s awe-inspiring “Avengers” saga, as well as the comics imprint’s more hit-and-miss “X-Men” series; the long-long-spanning “Star Wars” cycle; DreamWorks’ emotionally satisfying “How to Train Your Dragon” trilogy; and of course, “Toy Story,” which many assumed had ended after three movies. (Then again, looking back, many fans questioned whether the franchise really needed a second or third installment.) Leave it to the folks at Pixar to outdo themselves: Expanding on the notion that Buzz and Woody must find fresh purpose after Andy donates them to another child, this 21st-century riff on “The Velveteen Rabbit” is the studio’s most cinematic toon yet.
Following on the heels of art-house hit “Roma,” but produced for a fraction of the budget, Lila Avilés’ artful Spanish-language feature invites audiences to identify with a cleaning woman in a Mexico City hotel — a character who’s virtually invisible to the posh establishment’s well-to-do guests, but no less deserving of her own movie. With her hopes hitched to the prospect of a promotion, Eve (Gabriela Cartol) goes about her glamor-free routine like some kind of self-appointed anthropologist, extrapolating the lives of the customers whose rooms she tidies from the artifacts they leave behind. But it’s her dreams that matter here, modest though they are, suggesting a humane companion piece to Korean breakout “Parasite,” both of which erase the class differences between people of privilege and the help.
7. “Woman at War”
A would-be crowd-pleaser that somehow never managed to draw much in the way of a crowd, this sly Icelandic drama fulfills the fantasy that one person can still make a difference in a world where corporations call the shots. Director Benedikt Erlingsson’s disarmingly charming followup to ultra-dark stunner “Of Horses and Men,” this unconventional eco-thriller brings a dash of “Amelie”-esque whimsy to the account of an environmental crusader who refuses to let a massive mining company pillage her homeland’s still-pristine countryside, staging creative acts of sabotage against the looming threat. Considered alongside “Rams,” “Sparrows,” and “A White, White Day,” the inventive film is proof that Iceland is more than just an otherworldly location to shoot “Game of Thrones,” but a hotspot for talent.
8. “The Hottest August”
Every year, the medium of nonfiction filmmaking evolves in bold but innumerable ways, so much so that documentaries practically deserve their own year-end top 10 list. The most exciting one I saw in 2019 — during my first-ever trip to the True/False Film Fest — was Brett Story’s mind-bending look at the myriad anxieties gnawing away at New Yorkers toward the end of the previous summer. Story set out with a camera and followed her curiosity wherever it led, asking a wide range of people to share what was troubling them, then shaping those interviews into an audacious formal collage wherein certain themes emerge. Environmental concerns loom large, but the result ultimately feels like a cross between an intricate time capsule and an elaborate Rorschach test.
Easily the weirdest and most original film I saw this year, French director Jérémy Clapin’s out-there mystery follows a disembodied hand’s efforts to discover how it came to be separated from its body: Was it an accident or foul play? Is the person to whom the limb once belonged dead or alive? And most importantly, if the anthropomorphic appendage can somehow find its former owner, does she or he still have any use for it? Hand-drawn animation proves to be the ideal conduit for such a project, allowing Clapin to bend real-world rules in favor of guidelines the movie teaches us to follow as it unfolds. Released by Netflix, this unexpectedly profound, life-affirming romance encourages you to appreciate the world from a whole new perspective.
10. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”
At first, I took the casting of Tom Hanks as beloved children’s television host Fred Rogers as some kind of cheap trick, a sign that Marielle Heller’s oh-so-necessary film was going to be little more than a toothless nostalgia trip. Personally, I’d never seen an episode of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and I’d always considered the sweater-swapping puppet maven to be kind of a creep. Turns out, that’s essentially what journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) thought when he was assigned to profile Rogers, making him the ideal proxy for jaded skeptics like me. But Hanks wins us over in what feels like a cross between a postmodern Charlie Kaufman movie and a much-needed therapy session, wherein Rogers’ revolutionary gift for helping kids understand their feelings proves relevant to cynical adults as well.
Honorable mentions: “Greener Grass,” “Midsommar,” “Our Time,” “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” “The Two Popes.”
Every so often, a movie emerges from the comic-book ether that can, and will, stand the test of time. But a decade from now, when you watch Todd Phillips’ grandly squirmy and hypnotic say-hello-to-the-bad-guy fantasia, it’s not just that the film will hold up; it will, I predict, stand as the only movie of 2019 that channels our moment by turning it into a dark dream. In telling the story of Arthur Fleck, a damaged geek who gets in touch with his inner showbiz psycho, “Joker” expresses the collective unease of a world spinning out of control. As Arthur, who sheds what’s left of his sanity to get high on rage, Joaquin Phoenix laughs, cries, howls, implodes, and mesmerizes in the performance of the year.
Noah Baumbach has been directing movies, sometimes very good ones, for 25 years. But here, for the first time, he’s a full-scale bravura film artist, charting the divorce of one couple with such a stunning blend of specificity and emotion that you’ll feel, by the end, that you know them like your own family. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, in spectacular performances that work together with searing intimacy, enact the anger, pride, despair, and passion of a couple who tear their relationship apart, and their souls too, even as they both struggle to remain whole inside. “Marriage Story” tells the story of divorce in our time, and in doing so it earns a place next to those harrowing and heartrending texts of separation, “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “Scenes from a Marriage.”
In his earlier mob movies (the ’70s-street-hoodlum classic “Mean Streets,” the volatile suburban-gangster joyride “GoodFellas”), Martin Scorsese caught the mad freedom of the underworld life, and the crazy danger of it as well. But in telling the (mostly) true story of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a teamster-turned-hitman whose relationship with Jimmy Hoffa becomes the deadly measure of his loyalty, Scorsese has made a criminal epic that turns into a coldly enthralling reckoning. The mobsters here, including Frank’s gang boss (a brilliantly understated Joe Pesci) and Hoffa himself (played with ebullient grandeur by Al Pacino), are men of devious cunning, but they’re also ignorant armies clashing by night. Every minute of “The Irishman” holds you, yet what it shows us is a landscape where the deadly jockeying for power has subsumed all feeling.
In his remarkable first dramatic feature, writer-director Kent Jones tells the story of a widow, played by the 70-year-old Mary Kay Place, who lives in a close-knit community of rural Massachusetts. She and her fellow boomers have done something they were never remotely prepared for (they’ve gotten old), and Jones has made a deeply poignant and stirring drama about the first generation of people to reach their golden years without relinquishing the stubbornly romantic dream of youth. Place’s performance is a revelation — her Diane is haunted by death yet fully alive. The movie, like its heroine, is funny, angry, luminous, and mystical.
5. “Toy Story 4”
Each time we think the “Toy Story” saga is over, the virtuosos of Pixar find a way to make it deeper, more movingly melancholy — and, against all odds, as springy and delightful as ever. This one is an altogether wizardly piece of staging, as Woody and his pals find themselves stranded in a highway-side antique story that becomes an elaborate trap-door cosmos. Yet inevitably the question emerges: Is Woody himself now an antique? His slow-dawning perception that he has outlived his shelf life as a plaything will speak to anyone who has ever grown past a role in life they thought they were made for.
6. “Uncut Gems”
Benny and Josh Safdie have made a New York Diamond District thriller, starring Adam Sandler as a two-bit hustler who gambles himself into a corner, and it’s such a dizzyingly existential slice of scuzzball life that it makes Robert Altman look like Capra. The pressure-cooker anxiety, the spontaneous thrust and swirl of the camera, the jousts of shouting that materialize out of nowhere — you sit there and drink it all in, grooving on the barking-dog energy of it and wondering how, exactly, the Safdie brothers brought it off. Sandler, playing a Lawn Guyland loser who craves a taste of the high life, gives a performance so lived-in that before your eyes he becomes a great actor.
For six months, I’ve been tormented about what to do at the end of the year with Quentin Tarantino’s film. Tarantino tracks the tale of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a has-been TV star, and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), his gofer and stunt double, watching them do a slow fade in the Hollywood of 1969, and for a good long stretch it’s Tarantino’s most exhilarating ride since “Pulp Fiction.” Yet as much as I love the movie’s first two hours, I can’t abide its shoot-the-works finale, in which Tarantino’s dread-tinged vision of the Manson family gives way to a blood-soaked pageant of historical wish-fulfillment — a kind of what-if? sentimental junk-movie sensationalism — that, to me, violates everything that came before. That said, I can’t leave “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” off this list. Most of it is too tasty, too Quentin captivating, too impossible to forget.
Ever since the cultural revolution brought on by the Harvey Weinstein scandal, we’ve been waiting for a movie that indelibly dramatizes the fear and loathing and stark human cost of sexual harassment. The wait is over: “Bombshell” is that movie. Directed by Jay Roach, from a script by Charles Randolph, it’s a grippingly lively, cathartically authentic and intricate docudrama about how Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), one of the stars of Fox News, and Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), a former star who got canned, brought down the lecherous right-wing mogul-titan Roger Ailes by revealing the veritable system of sexual harassment he used to run his network. The film doesn’t hide its heroines’ complicity in broadcasting right-wing propaganda. Yet through Theron and Kidman’s powerful performances, it shows us the courage it took for these women to stand up against a TV empire that had become a rats’ nest of harassment in part because what the entire network was selling was a kind of pornography.
9. “A Hidden Life”
You could call it Terrence Malick’s return to form, and you’d be right, yet Malick is a filmmaker who invents a new form each time he makes a movie. This one is a haunting true story of bravery in wartime, yet it’s about someone who never fired a shot: Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), a tranquil Austrian farmer who refused to serve in Hitler’s army, even though he knew he’d be forced to — that is, that he’d get the chance to serve or to die. Malick works in a mode of majestic emotionalism that might be described as art-house “Sound of Music,” but what he’s doing is showing us the paradise that Franz has to abandon to follow his conscience. “A Hidden Life” creates a cathedral of the senses, and once you enter it the film becomes a meditation — on the meaning, and the price, of goodness.
10. “The Report”
What if they made a true-life political drama as riveting and relevant as the hot-button films of the ’70s, and nobody came? All because it landed in a distribution/perceptual netherworld somewhere between theatrical and streaming? That’s what happened to “The Report,” a commanding thriller of an exposé in which Adam Driver plays Daniel Jones, the Senate investigator who spent years documenting the truth of America’s use of torture in the years after 9/11. Why return to those dark days now? Because in writer-director Scott Z. Burns’ extraordinarily detailed and convulsive retelling, what was really going on in the age of waterboarding was the beginning of the end of the rule of law.
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