There are times when I struggle to fill out my annual top 10 films list due to a lack of worthy choices. Indeed, that’s been the case for several years running. However, 2019 provided a cornucopia …
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There are times when I struggle to fill out my annual top 10 films list due to a lack of worthy choices. Indeed, that’s been the case for several years running. However, 2019 provided a cornucopia of candidates, with a roster of worthy movies that runs 20-30 deep. In most years, a superbly shot war epic like “1917,” an actors’ showcase like “The Two Popes,” or a smartly updated adaptation like Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” would have easily cracked my best-of list. This year, they’re on the outside looking in, though not for a lack of merit.
Divining the prevailing theme for cinema’s best in 2019 was far easier. At least six films in my top 10 touch on the theme of haves versus the have nots, either directly or in passing. The best film of the year involves subterranean indigents deceiving, infiltrating, and finally assailing their surface-dwelling counterparts of means. And it’s not “Us.”
So here’s my best in cinema for 2019, along with the movies we could have easily done without.
Best Film of 2019 — “Parasite”: South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, who cracked my 2014 top 10 with “Snowpiercer,” crafts this film about members of a poor household scheming to find jobs with a wealthier family by posing as unrelated, qualified service workers. That tantalizing premise makes a terrific film by itself, but here it’s just half the story. Things spiral downward — literally and figuratively — from there, as this Palme d’Or winner takes some surprising and provocative turns. A great ensemble cast rounds out a film that’s not just the year’s top film, but also one of the decade’s best.
2. “The Irishman”: Director Martin Scorsese gets the gang back together for this gangster elegy — Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel, joined by Al Pacino playing union boss Jimmy Hoffa. But while the film winds through Hoffa’s rise and fall, it’s really a portrait of DeNiro’s taciturn heavy, who tiptoes through the world of the Mafia, worker unions, and their intersection with actual politics. But the impact of Scorsese’s epic isn’t truly felt until the final half-hour, when the director deconstructs much of his oeuvre and posits that in the gangster milieu, mere survival doesn’t always equate victory.
3. “Knives Out”: Director Rian Johnson’s droll takeoff on the drawing room whodunit also manages to zing our societal zeitgeist, ultimately pitting American oligarchy against America’s promise. It’s entertaining, engrossing, and boasts a terrific ensemble cast.
4. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”: If you watch this expecting to see Quentin Tarantino’s recreation of the Manson murders with Tinseltown as the mere backdrop, think again. This is about Tarantino’s cinematic playground, the 1969 Hollywood of his childhood, a neon-lit world of both fulfilled and broken dreams. Part nostalgia, part fan fiction, this a fairy tale where the party never ends, the pretend heroes become actual ones, and everyone lives happily ever after.
5. “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”: The captivating opening five minutes will grab you, paving the way for a poetic portrait of the gentrification of urban black America, in this instance the Fillmore district of San Francisco. Director Joe Talbot’s feature debut feels like the sort of film Spike Lee should be making nowadays.
6. “Marriage Story”: Writer-director Noah Bambach’s latest — basically a roman à clef —i sn’t about the throes of nuptial bliss, but rather the messiness of matrimonial disunion. The incisive writing is channeled by a terrific cast, including award-worthy turns by Adam Driver, Scarlett Johannson, and Laura Dern.
7. “Hustlers”: Based on a 2015 “New Yorker” magazine exposé about real-life New York nightclub dancers and their illicit grifts, the movie’s muddy morality is offset by director Lorene Scafaria’s pacing, framing, and visual aplomb. Aided by cinematographer Todd Banhazl, Scafaria crafts a feminine “Goodfellas” that hammers home the unsubtle metaphor that we’re all dancing for dollars, whether literally or figuratively.
8. “The Nightingale”: Director Jessica Kent’s second feature film is a raw portrait of humankind’s most awful proclivity for racial, sexual, and economic cruelty, finding a fertile setting in the penal colonies and Aboriginal massacres of 19th century Tasmania. The film isn’t for the faint of heart, but it is for viewers who embrace Kent’s allegiance to authenticity. There’s no easy or honest way to sugar-coat the savagery of this feral setting, and lead actor Aisling Franciosi deserves plaudits for not shirking from a stark, earnest examination.
9. “Ford v. Ferrari”: Director James Mangold produces a high-octane drama around Ford Motor Company’s real-life racing rivalry with Ferrari in the late 1960s. The visual effects are terrific and the storytelling is accessible and engaging. However, the film’s success rests on the able performances of Matt Damon, as American race car driver and owner Carroll Shelby, and Christian Bale, as hot-headed mechanic and driver Ken Miles.
10. “The Farewell”: This lovely, plaintive mediation on family and coping with death by director Lulu Wang features two awards-worthy turns. One is by Zhao Shuzhen, playing the matriarch living in China, whose extended family comes to visit without informing her that she’s terminally ill. The other is Awkwafina, whose star continues to rise playing the Americanized granddaughter struggling to cope with impending loss filtered through cultural conflict.
Honorable Mentions: “1917”; “Booksmart”; “Dark Waters”; “Dolemite is My Name”; “Little Women”; “The Report”; “The Peanut Butter Falcon”; “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”; “Uncut Gems”; “Waves”
Worst Film of 2019 — “Gemini Man”: The easy and “worthy” choice to top this inauspicious category is “Cats.” But this sci-fi codswallop has it all: a critically acclaimed director, a high-profile star, and a big budget buttressed by cutting-edge filmmaking technology. The result is a narrative and visual mess, with Will Smith playing a retired gun-for-hire targeted by his former minders using a younger, cloned version of himself. The CGI is wonky, but the rudderless story and inane, over-expositional script is where this mess really falls apart. As the ludicrous final scene (mercifully) ends and the closing credits began to roll, I literally exclaimed, “Ang Lee directed this?!?”
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