If you think this was a bad year for movies, I think you’re seeing the wrong movies.
Yes, it’s hard to get excited about cinema when your multiplex gives you a choice of “Star Wars: Episode Who Cares Anymore” or “Cats,” with Taylor Swift slinking around in kitten heels (literally).
But look a little deeper – at indie films, imports, documentaries and the occasional big-screen drama that actually worked – and you can find some reasons to celebrate 2019.
Here are 10 of mine, from best to near-best.
PARASITE The horror-movie title (and the subtitles) may scare off some. Too bad. Because if you didn’t see Bong Joon Ho’s creepy Korean thriller you missed a movie that started off in slyly grim Patricia Highsmith territory and then took a sharp, last-act turn into Grand Guignol horror, all the while making painful points about class, privilege, envy and revenge.
THE IRISHMAN Martin Scorsese’s mob movies are often about The Life – the slick, finger-snapping style that every goodfella aspires to. This ruminative study is about The Cost – and who bears it. Both sprawling and intensely focused, it serves as a kind of coda to Scorsese’s crime cycle, and delivers standout performances from a fiery Al Pacino and contemplative Joe Pesci.
ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD Another director looks back, as Quentin Tarantino delivers a singularly reflective examination of the slow death of old Hollywood, and the sudden death of American innocence, in 1969. The bloody last half-hour garnered the most attention, but watch for Leonardo DiCaprio’s terrific acting – and Brad Pitt’s extraordinary charm.
MARRIAGE STORY Noah Baumbach’s movies have always been highly verbal and often uncomfortably true to life, as we watch recognizably flawed people do believably terrible things. But this portrait of a painful divorce is particularly on point, as a raging Adam Driver and wounded Scarlett Johansson hurt each other in the ways only two true lovers ever can.
PAIN AND GLORY An aging artist looks back on life, with tenderness and regret. Not exactly a new idea, particularly in this nostalgia-driven year, but as usual Spain’s Pedro Almodóvar makes the personal poetic in a magical memoir starring a superbly centered and deeply thoughtful Antonio Banderas as an ailing director remembering loves lost, risks undared.
APOLLO 11 A documentary about an event we think we know by heart, it features no new experts, no narration, and no startlingly iconoclastic point of view. So why does Todd Douglas Miller’s film thrill? A wealth of rediscovered and restored footage. A careful script and seamless editing that weave it together. And, perhaps, a necessary reminder of a day when this nation still dared.
THE FAREWELL Every year brings a slew of movies that slew at Sundance – and are dead-on-arrival in movie theaters. Here’s one, however, that lived up to the advance praise, as filmmaker Lulu Wang spins a story that’s both specific (a relative’s illness brings an Asian-American family back to China) and painfully universal (alienation, assimilation, guilt).
LUCE Another festival favorite, Julius Onah’s film flew under many people’s radar. Too bad. Its story – the black adopted son of two white parents accuses a black teacher of bias – was provocative in all the best ways. And the performances – Tim Roth and Naomi Watts as the parents, newcomer Kelvin Harrison Jr as their child, and the always extraordinary Octavia Spencer – was superb.
1917 In a less-busy holiday season – or with better-known leads – Sam Mendes’ film would have gotten more attention. It has a strong supporting cast, including Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch, and an eye-catching style – edited to appear as a continuous, uninterrupted shot. And both are in service of a war story that’s about the price soldiers pay, and often for so painfully little.
LITTLE WOMEN Greta Gerwig’s new version of the old classic mixes things up a bit, narratively, cutting between our heroines as girls and adults – a decision that interrupts the dramatic flow, a little. But once you accept that, it’s a pleasure to surrender to her perfect sense of time and place, her renewed emphasis on female strength, and richly detailed performances from a large cast.