It’s unfortunate but I must start with an apology: this list is far later than I’d like. The first reason for this tardiness is due to my current job for which I had an intense period in the middle of January, two weeks in which my life shut down other than working, eating, and sleeping. Writing, from novel drafting to messaging my parents, was not an option.
The second and greater reason is location. One of the unfortunate consequences of living outside of the United States is that movie schedules are dependent not only upon studios deciding to send the movie overseas and national governmental policy but also on theaters choosing which movies their viewers will pay to attend. This means that while some big movies, like anything by Disney or Marvel, can open between three days and a week earlier than in the US, there are many movies which open much later or never open at all. Even big movies, like Rise of Skywalker, can open weeks late because the local audience isn’t attached to the Star Wars franchise. Even now, almost one-twelfth through 2020, films like Jojo Rabbit and 1917 are yet to debut. Thus in order to write this list I have to wait until every possible entry is available on demand or at home, which in the case of fall and winter releases – the season of prestige films – often means the beginning of the next year. I then watch as many movies as possible, typically two or three a day, which is actually quite fun, in order to get this list done before it is completely irrelevant. As is only four of the films out of this top ten ever played in my city, and one of them without English subtitles.
So yeah, sorry this is late. It’s been a busy month.
Honorable Mention: Alita: Battle Angel
Honestly, I wanted so badly for Alita to maintain a spot on my top ten list. Sure, Alita‘s flaws are as obvious as the eyes on the titular character’s face but it also has a lot of heart, a great lead performance, and with establishment out of the way an Alita franchise could be amazing. There is probably the most blatant set-up for a second movie since Amazing Spider-Man 2, but that feels much less egregious when the world and the protagonist are as intriguing as Alita. Basically, I just really want to see where James Cameron, Robert Rodriguez, and Rosa Salazar go with this series.
Honorable Mention: Dolemite Is My Name
The majority of press written about Dolemite Is My Name focuses on how great Eddie Murphy is in the lead role. It is likely his best performance ever. What gets less attention is how Dolemite very nicely explores Rudy Ray Moore’s struggle to “make it” even as he advances in age. There are tons of stories about people trying to make it in Hollywood but rarely as those people as settled into their life as Moore is so seeing him persevere when his contemporaries have given up, and Murphy’s stellar performance, makes Dolemite rise above the “inspirational” real life story genre. As someone who has just hit 40 and still has so much left to accomplish, this type of story is always welcome.
Honorable Mention: Joker
Joker is an excellent film with likely the heaviest cultural impact and best lead performance of the year. Probably the only things that can stop Joaquin Phoenix from finally winning an Oscar is another I’m Still Here style talk show appearance or trash talking Chris Jericho. What holds Joker off the main list, at least in my opinion, is just how derivative it feels. Putting aside the marketing that attempted to disguise a film about society’s failure on mental health issues as some anti-SJW screed, and the legions of viewers who then aligned themselves with the fictional mob that misinterprets Arthur Fleck’s homicidal tendencies, Joker is primarily a blend of Taxi Driver and King of Comedy in DC cosplay. I mean, it’s really good, but it’s not original. Still, at least Joker is the best Martin Scorsese film of 2019.
10. Jojo Rabbit
In Jojo Rabbit, Taika Waititi turns the childhood lens he’d focused so well in Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople toward blind hatred and fanaticism. Yet rather than a treatise on the nationalistic sentiment currently resurging in much of the world, Waititi uses his irreverent humor and eviscerating sarcasm to stab at the source of that hatred, pointing out just how stupid Nazis have always been. Add in strong performances from Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Thomasin MacKenzie, Waititi himself as the most likable Adolf Hitler ever, and Roman Griffin Davis turning in one of the best performances by a child actor since, well, Thomasin MacKenzie in Leave No Trace, or Maisie Williams back when people still liked Game of Thrones, and you have a truly exceptional film. At a time when far too many people are citing diversity and inclusion as the death of comedy, Waititi made an often outrageous film that is not only hilarious but full of genuine heart and affection. Jojo Rabbit proves that while some so-called comedy may need to rely on empty offensiveness for laughs, a truly talented humorist can make comedy feel like a warm hug.
9. The Farewell
Awkwafina sure has come a very long way since “My Vag” was popping up on Youtube.
With Awkwafina serving as her proxy, writer/director Lulu Wang perfectly captures the experience of an immigrant child trying to participate in the culture they left, through no choice of their own, that they will never be accepted into, and how the loss of a family member can mean losing our last connection to that culture. Yet even with this background of loss, The Farewell rarely devolves into misery or sentimentality. Instead, the film deftly bounces from drama, as the Wang family quietly prepares themselves for the inevitable, to comedy, with their “dying” grandmother Nai Nai as the liveliest figure on screen. While the idea of not telling a sick person that she is sick may be a foreign concept to most Westerners, the feelings of isolation, sadness, and the frequent absurdity of how we handle grief and family traditions, all of which are displayed in Awkwafina’s performance, are universal. The Farewell is a lovingly crafted statement on how we as humans say goodbye.
It’s also nice that the woman who once bragged “my vag won Best Vag, your vag won Best Supporting Vag” now has an actual Golden Globe award to brag about.
8. I Lost My Body
An animated fantasy drama with a touch of horror where a disembodied hand wonders through the city, encountering rats and children, and riding an umbrella across a highway, in pursuit of the man the hand belongs to all while, simultaneously, the story of that man, Naoufel, and how he lost that hand plays in flashbacks… everything that makes I Lost My Body weird is what makes it the most unique viewing experience of the year. Yet separated from the hand’s narrative, the film is a decidedly more familiar, and decidedly French, narrative of an alienated young man trying to meet a girl. Even then, the film stands tall with a beautiful hand-drawn art style and inventive use of musical score showing that director Jeremy Clapin didn’t need to rely on this gimmick to make an effecting film. Taken as a whole, the film is a striking rumination on loss, loneliness, and destiny, building its own world and rules as an urban fairy tale. Those willing to accept I Lost My Body‘s perspective in both physical and emotional contexts will find a small story of wide interpretations: less a closed fist than an opened palm.
Lorene Scafaria skillfully matches style and substance with her film playing out like a female-lead version of Goodfellas, complete with narration and a rise and fall structure familiar from every good crime movie. Whereas Scorsese’s characters use the typically masculine traits of brutality and violence to take what they want, the women of Hustlers use the typically female traits of seduction and sex appeal to be given what they want, flipping the power dynamic in a way that few stories have. In the same way that their victims are blinded by the sexy exterior, Hustlers offers an honest exploration of the relationships women build among themselves. Jennifer Lopez oozes confidence in her best performance since Out of Sight, while the only problem with Constance Wu is that she hasn’t received the praise she deserves, which could in fact be said for the entire film. Hustlers has all the trappings of mainstream Hollywood emptiness (it even has a cameo by Cardi B), but like its characters the flash is a distraction. There is a lot more here than you see.
6. Ad Astra
What has always made science fiction great is the way that a skilled artist can use such genre tropes as space, technology, and the future to portray fundamental truths about our real experience. This is exactly what Ad Astra accomplishes. By following Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride on his long journey to reconnect with his estranged father we are offered time to reflect on our own relationships and what obstacles and complications we’ve allowed to come between us and those we care about. Pitt’s stoic performance, with his character noted for his ability to keep a steady heart rate even under the tensest circumstances, makes his moments of vulnerability all the more striking. His self-doubt, likely informed by the actor’s own loss of family, questions the patriarchal ideal of the unfeeling, myopic father figure more dedicated to exterior achievements than interior satisfaction. Of course, it helps that this quiet contemplation happens within a beautifully realized vision of a near-future Milky Way with Lunar colonies and Martian settlements. Ad Astra is the type of science fiction which reminds us that what happens in the infinite expanse of space is often times less important than the experience within the finite area of ourselves.
5. The Last Black Man in San Francisco
San Francisco is a city of contradictions. It’s a city that still sees itself as a bastion of anti-materialistic counter-culture dimming with the spirit of peace and love driven by the hippy movement of the 1960’s, a place of absolute acceptance where America tries out its most progressive policies. Yet it’s also a city where teenagers drive to Haight Street to pretend to be homeless, early adopters spend days in line for the newest iPhone, dotcom millionaires demand separate buses just for them, and skyrocketing housing costs have pushed out the native characters which made the city famous. Joe Talbot’s debut film is also full of contradictions. At once an authentic reflection of how gentrification impacts the natives of a city, and a visual poem of life in an ever-changing world, The Last Black Man in San Francisco juxtaposes what San Francisco is and what San Francisco thinks it is. Never less than beautiful, Last Black Man is as real as it is abstract. Its characters, lead by co-writer Jimmie Fails, speak in their own language, similar and yet distinct from our own, with as many real world traits as obvious cinematic quirks. The result is something familiar yet foreign, sad yet pleasant, real yet allegorical, and entirely unique.
It’s been 13 years since the release of Superbad and in many ways the coming-of-age teen comedy hadn’t improved until Booksmart. In her feature-length debut director Olivia Wilde (yup, as in the actress) flips the typical crude last-chance comedy by focusing on a pair of smart girls who have sacrificed four years to the gods of grades and getting into their dream schools before realizing that they haven’t actually experienced anything. What follows are the usual mishaps and high jinks – including an encounter with their school principle, being taken to the wrong party, and, of course, a first experience using drugs – but this time smarter, more effecting, and a lot more beautifully filmed than the genre has ever been. Wilde fills every scene with energy, life, and color, turning familiar tropes into unexpected delights. Similarly characters usually portrayed as one-note archetypes are given full lives by stars Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever, whose timing and banter resemble that of veteran improv comics who have spent years bouncing ideas off of each other. Booksmart has the crude humor demanded of the genre but also has a sense of sincerity, charm, and acceptance, with the characters espousing a decidedly feminist ideology, which almost belies its status as one of the freshest, funniest films of the year. If Superbad could be considered the Fred Astaire of crude teenage comedies, Booksmart is the Ginger Rogers doing everything Astaire does backwards and in high heels. In another word: better.
3. Knives Out
A film doesn’t need to be a life-changing epic rumination on truth and humanity’s place in the universe to be great. Nor does it need to make a billion dollars to be successful. Evidence can be found in Knives Out where Rian Johnson and an astonishing ensemble turn an excellent script, solid acting, and strong camera work into one of the most enjoyable detective yarns in decades. Sticking with his career-long theme of subverting expectation (as he did with Looper and Last Jedi), Johnson’s script provides the requisite twists of the murder mystery genre while adding a few of his own, the greatest being a reliance on reasonable explanations over logic-defying shocks and an attention to detail that calls out how out lazy other screenwriters can be. The cast rewards their characters by embracing these fleshed-out, awful, horrible people. While Chris Evans deserves mention for having a great time on screen, Daniel Craig and Ana de Armas carry the film with the latter providing the heart and the former providing, well, just about everything else, including an accent simultaneously hilarious and appropriate. Knives Out proves that intelligent, well-acted, well-made films can be flat-out fun. Best of all, Johnson and Craig have already expressed interest in more Benoit Blanc movies. Hopefully they can find a way to bring de Armas along. And Evans. And LaKeith Stanfield. And Jamie Lee Curtis. And Michael Shannon. And…
The fact that a film so deeply rooted in the experience of contemporary South Korean society has been embraced by audiences with little to no knowledge of the society which created that film speaks to both how great Parasite is and how prevalent the issues it explores are. By sharpening his visual and tonal shifts Bong Joon-Ho’s talent for exploring the murky depths of societal ills is more acute than ever, even as conclusions remain elusive. Marketed as a dark comedy thriller, Parasite blends genre (covering the spectrum from horror to screwball to heist movie) so seamlessly that every descriptor is somehow correct. Yet even more dazzling is the way that Bong does the same with the theme of class struggle, allowing the unspoken word of parasite to apply from every perspective, and inviting the viewer to consider why that title applies and how each segment of society feeds of off each other. His wild yet contained energy makes even the most innocuous set-up unsafe, making the viewer uneasy, even angry, as this primal scream of bewildered outraged plays out uncontrollable before us. Fun as it can be, Parasite is not an easy viewing experience, least of all because it reminds us that we – whether familiar with contemporary Korea or not – are experiencing these very same atrocities every single day. Ours may not be as direct or bombastic as the Kims’ or the Parks’, but their struggle is ours. We are all, ourselves, parasites feeding off other parasites feeding off us.
1. Avengers: Endgame
If you’ve been paying attention so far you may have noticed that this list is devoid of sequels and franchise films. The reason is that, despite how good movies like Spider-Man: Far From Home and Toy Story 4 are, every big franchise release this year felt like more of the same. The exception to this was Avengers: Endgame.
What makes Avengers: Endgame different from every other Marvel movie, or franchise movie, or every sequel ever is that none have tried to do what Endgame did. Endgame is at once its own story, a follow-up to its direct predecessor, the culmination of a dozen character arcs, and the climax of a combined twenty films spread over ten years.
Movies like Hustlers, Jojo Rabbit, Booksmart, Ad Astra, and Knives Out, mainstream entertainment though they are, may somehow feel more authentic, more like “cinema,” as Martin Scorsese (who remains my all-time favorite director) might call them. Or while films like I Lost My Body, The Farewell, The Last Black Man in San Francisco and Parasite may register as great due to their intimacy and importance. But as outstanding as these movies are they can’t match the scope or skill of filmmaking on display in every minute of Endgame‘s three hours.
We’ve seen great superhero films as recently as last year’s Into the Spider-Verse. We’ve also seen bad superhero films with Fantastic Four, Justice League, Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad, generally anything from the DC Snyder-verse not called Wonder Woman. We’ve even seen decent but unremarkable superhero films like Ant-Man and the Wasp and Doctor Strange. So we know that unlimited budgets, recognizable characters, A-list movies stars, and the greatest in modern effects technology don’t automatically make for a great film.
Great film requires story, characters, and stakes. Great film compels us as an audience to invest in what is happening on screen, as fantastical and unreal as those events may be. Great film causes us to feel something: excitement, dread, anger, loneliness, joy – something that we wouldn’t otherwise experience if we weren’t watching. Great film lets us participate in the communal experience of a theater full of strangers laughing, crying, and cheering together as one. Great film gives us moments where we invest in everything we see and hear, where we feel the emotions of the people we’re watching, and where we forget that we are staring at images on a flat screen as our hearts pound against our chests and we want to jump to our feet and scream in triumph.
There was no greater moment in film in 2019 than when Captain American catches Mjolnir.
That is cinema.
Comparing Endgame to any other Marvel movie, franchise movie, sequel, comic book movie, superhero movie, studio movie, arthouse film, or damn near anything else is selling short everything that Endgame accomplishes. Endgame isn’t a just movie. It’s an achievement.