For eight or so months it seemed 2019 was going to be a mediocre year for movies. Sure there was the occasional surprise (Shazam! – Zachary Levi, my goodness), a couple of much better than average Stephen King adaptations (Pet Sematary, It 2 – both very effective) and even a grump like me had to admit Marvel somehow pulled off a very satisfying end to their multi-year experiment with Avengers: Endgame. But otherwise… meh. Around September, however, some switch went off! Fall and winter have been terrific. It’s been a while since I’ve been this jazzed about a string of such strong films. My best of the best:
I did a full post on my favorite movie of 2019 shortly after Joker’s release so I won’t belabor it here. Here’s a link to the piece if you’re interested:
This post on Joker also discussed another big favorite:
Already an extremely accomplished director (see Snowpiercer, Mother, The Host, etc) Bong Joon-ho somehow stepped up his game with this savage black comedy about class and family. Brilliant.
There’s an aspect to Marriage Story, a modern day Kramer Vs Kramer/Scenes from a Marriage, that usually causes me to dislike a movie: a story about people who exists in a 1% Westside Bubble. (Marriage Story manages to be double Westside… Westside LA and Upper Westside NYC… yes I know the Manhattan section occurs mostly in a borough but it’s the same rarified arena.) Life is this bubble has little relation to life anywhere else in the rest of the world; movies taking place in the bubble tend to be pretentious and also, well, who cares about people with ridiculous problems? Hollywood loves to bash the 1% but the world of the 1% is the only life many in Hollywood know. Hollywood adores and celebrates this world. (I understand. I saw Downton Abbey The Movie… twice. That’s my kind of 1%!)
Marriage Story blew me away. The movie is performed so perfectly (by literally every member of the cast), so confidently directed and written by Noah Baumbach, my jaw hung open much of the time. There are scenes in Marriage Story so excruciatingly honest and painful I had to look away, yet the movie is also riotously funny. I laughed often and loudly. There’s enough truth in the movie that anyone who watches can relate. Baumbach somehow bursts through the bubble. I didn’t think any movie could topple Joker as my favorite of the year… Marriage Story very well may have done it.
You can watch this on Netflix right now!
FORD V FERRARI
I had no desire to see Ford v Ferrari. Racing. Yawn. Thankfully a buddy dragged me to see it and I fell in love. Yes, it involves racing but the movie is about so much more: a complex friendship as well as a marvelous character study of Ken Miles. There is also a lovely look at Miles’ marriage. Ford v Ferrari ranks with Marriage Story as the best acted movie of the year. The entire cast is incredible, not just the two marvelous leads. (Special note to Tracy Letts and his scene in the car… what he did in that scene ain’t easy, folks. Wow. May I reveal how envious I am of a brilliant, Pulitzer Prize winning writer who is also a great actor? Talk about a dream career… Loser!) James Mangold once again proves himself a master at crafting movies with great depth that are still wildly entertaining (see also Logan and Walk The Line.) You won’t have a better time in the movie theatre all year.
In 2005, I saw the trailer for the new Keira Knightley version of Pride and Prejudice and thought, “What? Why?? Done already and done perfectly. Not gonna bother.” Then I saw it… and saw it another five times in the theatre, and numerous times since, and I teach it in my class on Adaptation.
I felt the same way when I heard Greta Gerwig was doing yet another adaptation of Little Women. “Really? Do we need this?” Gerwig gets the last laugh. I cried my way through Little Women, one of the most deliriously romantic and beautiful movies I’ve seen since, well, Joe Wright’s Pride And Prejudice. I loved the time jumping, which made the story hit even harder for me this time. The innovation made the story feel fresh and new. Little Women also sports another impeccable cast. What great acting! (And Tracy Letts again! Loser!)
Little Women is glorious.
THE TWO POPES
Forgive me, but I have to say something very cheeseball. The Two Popes, alternately very funny and deeply moving, is “a movie for our time.” It’s the true story of two good men with wildly different views of the world and culture who somehow find a way to discuss and debate their differences without foaming at the mouth. Neither likes the other. But forced to spend time together by external circumstances, they begin listen to one another. Eventually each is changed by the other. Remarkable. Two of our finest actors, Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins, are better than you could imagine which, given the two actors, is saying a lot. Gorgeously shot, The Two Popes is a quiet, subtle stunner of enormous power.
You can also find The Two Popes on Netflix. Oh, and don’t turn it off when “it’s over”… the end credit sequence is pure joy.
No one saw Doctor Sleep, which is such a shame. Easily one of the best adaptations of a Stephen King book ever, writer/director Mike Flanagan, who created the dazzling Haunting of Hill House series on Netflix, took King’s most personal novel, a sequel to The Shining, and gave us one of the year’s best and most wrenching movies. King, of course, hated the Kubrick adaptation of The Shining, which threw out the incredible ending of the novel and replaced it with a big fat nothing burger. Flanagan, however, knew Doctor Sleep had to at least use Kubrick’s iconic imagery, given the belated popularity of Kubrick’s film, a flop when it was first released. Without given much away, Flanagan brilliantly restores King’s original ending of the novel by using Kubrick’s hotel. It’s incredible.
I also must mention Rebecca Ferguson’s performance as Rose The Hat, Doctor Sleep’s villain. Ferguson somehow makes Rose as sexy and attractive as she is evil. Her performance is a stunner. So is Doctor Sleep.
Yes, I’m including this terrific “Jaws-like” thriller. It may not be an Oscar-worthy movie but when something is this well crafted and gripping, with surprisingly good character depth, it ranks as “Best Of” for me. Crawl is an absolute blast.
Note: I have a feeling both The Farewell and 1917 will end up here. They are the last two movies on my big list I haven’t seen.
Other noteworthy mentions:
I must commend Brad Pitt’s remarkable work in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. He’s so good in this movie his work seems effortless. It’s not. And while my favorite, QT, didn’t hit this year end list, the extended sequence in OUATIH at The Ranch is one of the best pieces of filmmaking I’ve seen in years. Margot Robbie was also wonderful… the whole cast, really.
There’s Renee Zellweger’s performance in Judy. I didn’t think anyone could match Judy Davis’s genius in the 2001 TV version of Garland’s life but Zellweger certainly did. Such a pleasure to watch. And a very good film!
It’s scandalous that Paul Walter Hauser isn’t getting every acting nomination in the world for his phenomenal performance in Richard Jewell, another terrific movie Warner Bros mis-marketed. (Someone in the Warner’s marketing department is in a lot of trouble right now…)
Robert Pattison and Willem Defoe were both stunning in The Lighthouse.
It was a divine pleasure to see Joe Pesci back on screen in The Irishman. He was so damn good. Al Pacino really captured Hoffa well, his best performance in a long time. I found The Irishman at times very good but often interminable. I realize a lot of people who love it are watching it in pieces on Netflix. That’s a TV show, not a movie. And I do think this would be a great TV show. I had to watch it all at once in the theatre, without even an intermission. It felt like 10 hours, not 3.5.
Let me know your favorites!