As we close out 2019, we look back at the best in film of this past year, which I believe will be looked at as one of the strongest years for movies in this decade along with 2010, 2015, and 2017 (Best of Decade list coming shortly). Hollywood closed out two of its biggest franchises, Disney conquered the world of IP and put another studio out of business, and streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon arrived in a big way to give us some of the best work from the industry’s most talented artists. Let’s dive in…
The Rest of the Best: Apollo 11 / Ford v Ferrari / Booksmart / The Kid Who Would Be King / Avengers: Endgame / Midsommar / Hustlers / Dolemite is My Name / Ready or Not / Crawl
Best Performance: Paul Walter Hauser, Richard Jewell
Biggest Surprise: Crawl
Visual Achievement Award: 1917
Best Scene: Elton John Plays The Troubadour, Rocketman
Biggest OMG Moment: The Finale, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
This early summer release chronicling the life and career of the legendary Elton John both owes a debt and grievance to last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody. If director Dexter Fletcher hadn’t come to the rescue and turn Bohemian Rhapsody into a massive global box-office hit, he likely never would have been given the freedom to realize his ultimate vision for Rocketman. However, that success likely cast a large shadow over this current musical biopic and though it was a critical success, it was a financial disappointment. For someone that found Bohemian Rhapsody to be a bland retelling of every music biopic you’ve ever seen, I found Rocketman to be an explosion of energy and creativity. Turning the music biopic into a full-fledged musical seems like such an obvious choice yet it had never really been done before and results are a sensational series of sequences anchored by a tremendous performance from star Taron Egerton who also does all of his own singing. Hopefully the passage of time is kind to Fletcher’s Elton opus that rightfully recognizes it as one of the very best of the genre.
9. The Irishman
Martin Scorsese’s long-gestating gangster epic had a lot of questions to answer. Could Scorsese craft another mobster movie that doesn’t feel like a retread? Does the massive amount of digital de-aging work? Does the movie justify its 3 1/2 hour running time? Well one should never doubt a filmmaker of Scorsese’s pedigree and skill because the answer to those questions is in the affirmative (with a few caveats). The de-aging on the actors can be hit-or-miss. While Robert De Niro does look strikingly like his younger self, he doesn’t quite move like his younger self. However the film doesn’t ask for its actors to perform a lot of action. This is a film about men who carry the burdens of all their misdeeds heavily on their shoulders. It’s not a movie Scorsese could have made ten or even twenty years ago. This is about looking back on a lifetime of work and wondering if it was all worth it. It’s easily the director’s most reflective and soulful film that features some of the best performances from its stars, particularly Joe Pesci whose return to the screen as welcome of a sight as any. This epic of American life flies by thanks to the expert editing of longtime collaborator Thelma Schoomaker and ranks alongside Scorsese’s very best.
8. Toy Story 4
It ended perfectly. As Andy waved goodbye to his childhood toys after finding them a new home, it’s hard to think of a more poignant way of closing out one of Hollywood’s most impressive series of films. When news of a fourth chapter broke, it was natural to be cynical. Usually whenever Hollywood can’t leave well-enough alone, the results are less than ideal. The biggest hurdle this movie had was simply justifying its own existence. Another wholesome adventure would seem like a waste of time. Luckily the filmmakers recognized this obstacle and crafted a story that finds new depths and destinies for its characters that are both surprising yet feel right at home. What does a toy do when he realizes his time has passed? Especially a toy like the always-loyal Woody. Toy Story 4 provides answers that are both emotional and highly entertaining in a way only Pixar can do. This chapter not only proudly continues the legacy but gives Woody the kind of ending that feels both hopeful and final.
Sam Mendes’ sensational World War I epic has to be one of the most impressive filmmaking achievements of the past decade. Told entirely through a single continuous camera take (with some digital assistance), 1917 immerses you in a way few films can as we follow two soldiers across enemy lines to prevent a massacre of their fellow troops. Much like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, 1917 is a tight and focused thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout. Unlike Dunkirk though, we get to intimately know our soldier heroes and who they are as men, providing the story an emotional well that will bring more than a few tears to your eyes. Special mention must be paid to the great Roger Deakins for his dazzling cinematography. There are several moments throughout that are among some of the most jaw-dropping of the year (or any year). There’s a surprising dearth of World War I movies in existence, but Mendes and his team of technical wizards crafts one of the best since Stanley Kubrick’s classic Paths of Glory.
6. Jojo Rabbit
The winner of this year’s most impressive high-wire act has to go to Taika Waititi for his hilarious and heartfelt coming-of-age story Jojo Rabbit. This movie could have gone off the rails in so many different directions. A comedy about Nazi’s? Dangerous ground for 2019’s political climate. Waititi though proves incredibly adept at juggling multiple tones as the movie effortlessly shifts between scathingly hilarious and utterly heartbreaking. The performances from the cast are universally excellent, especially young Roman Griffin Davis and Thomasin McKenzie as Jojo and Elsa, the Jewish girl who hides in Jojo’s house. Scarlett Johansson provides the film with a strong moral compass and helps make this one of the year’s most vital films as it gives audiences a glimmer of hope for even the most indoctrinated among us to see the light.
5. Marriage Story
Noah Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical tale of his divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh is one of the most compassionate and honestly brutal depictions of family, parenting, marriage, and divorce since 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer. Told from both perspectives, the film goes to great lengths to show how neither party is wholly right or wholly wrong, but how legal system can tear people apart all the same. Both Baumbach’s screenplay and direction are astute and deeply felt and achingly human, but it’s the sensational performances from his cast that elevate this above your typical family drama. Both Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are doing some of their best work, while Laura Dern nearly runs away with the whole show as a cutthroat divorce attorney. It wouldn’t be too hard to imagine Driver, Johansson, Dern, and Baumbach to all hear their names called come Oscar time.
4. Ad Astra
Brad Pitt had a career-year in 2019 and delivered two of his best performances and they could not be more different from each other. Director James Gray has become known from creating meditative, soul-searching journeys for obsessed men and in Ad Astra he has crafted his masterpiece. The technical craftsmanship of the film is sensational but it’s the inward journey of Pitt’s character as he travels out into deep space and wrestles with his relationship to his father, played by Tommy Lee Jones that gives the movie its guts. The world-building within the film’s near future is some of the most seamless since 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road but that should not make audiences mistake this for a big sci-fi action spectacle. This is a soulful and contemplative psychological journey through the solar system and it’s exactly the kind of film I’ve been hoping to see ever since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Does it live up to those lofty standards? No. But is it one of the best hard sci-fi space journeys in recent memory? Very much Yes.
3. Knives Out
What a decade Writer-Director Rian Johnson has had. He began the 2010’s with one of the best modern sci-fi tales in Looper, continued by directing some of the most iconic episodes of Breaking Bad, created one of the most audacious blockbusters of all-time in The Last Jedi, and ended it with a soaring rebirth of the Whodunnit sub-genre in Knives Out. Much like the next film on our list, Johnson’s film feels like a movie for the moment with the way it pits the “Haves” and “Have-Nots” of society against each other but it never gets bogged down in its message, thanks to Johnson’s brilliant and air-tight screenplay and the wonderful performances from his ensemble cast. Daniel Craig and Ana De Armas are the stars of the show, but Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, and others all shine bright and throughout. Knives Out is a film that rewards repeat viewings as you watch the cogs of Johnson’s mystery machine fall into place, but it never loses an ounce of joy, even with all of the cards laid out on the table.
South Korean director Bong Joon Ho has built himself a career as one of the industry’s most idiosyncratic and subversive filmmakers, going back to his 2006 breakout The Host and continuing with Snowpiercer — one of the decade’s best science fiction films. Parasite finds Joon Ho bringing all of his talent and expertise to bear in a movie that can seemingly do it all. For a large majority, it plays like a devilishly twisted and delightful soap opera as the poor Kim family grifts their way into working for an upper class family that’s too privileged and entitled to know any better. What makes Parasite so good isn’t just how entertaining and funny it is, but how it effortlessly juggles tones to become a horrific thriller that brings with it a biting social commentary on income inequality. Parasite is so expertly crafted, so richly textured, and so wonderfully performed that it just be one the great movies of our time.
1. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino’s ode to the Hollywood of yesteryear isn’t simply a film that you watch and enjoy (though its entertainment value is massive), but one that you crawl inside of and live in for nearly three hours. It’s not only the immaculate attention to detail that vividly bring this world to life, but the emotions it stirs. Only in a movie like this could you have a sequence of restaurant signs turning on that gives you a lump in your throat. None of this would work as well as it does without the impeccable performances of its cast, namely Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt — who are both doing some of the best work of their long, respective careers. Every scene and sequence within Tarantino’s opus is a masterclass in comedy, character, or tension — all building to an unforgettable finale. I could list my favorite moments such as the clips from the fictional “Bounty Law” show, Leo’s breakdown in his trailer, Pitt touring the Manson ranch, or just two guys hanging out watching TV together, but I’d probably end up listing every scene in the movie. It’s one of the best pieces of entertainment this year and it only gets better the more times you re-visit this wild, wonderful world.