All told, 2019 was kind of a weird year for movies. Disney, whose world we increasingly live in, made $10 billion at the box office before releasing Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker—thanks to cash cows like Avengers: Endgame (on our list) and a live-action remake of the The Lion King (very much not). Meanwhile, there seemed to be far fewer indie breakthroughs. (Or maybe they were just drowned out by all the whizbang? Hard to tell.) The middle, it turned out, was the sweet spot—high-gloss nonblockbusters like Parasite and Booksmart were absolute treasures. These are our favorites from all points on the spectrum.
Writer-director Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite was easily 2019’s biggest surprise. Not because Bong doesn’t always make great films (see: Snowpiercer, Okja, The Host), but because it twists audiences into such uncomfortable knots before gruesomely unwinding the tension in ways few viewers can see coming. What starts as a family pulling an ever-escalating grift on a much wealthier one in an upscale part of town ends up a powerful commentary on how people relate to and value each other, and the ways the anxieties and messes of the rich often have to be assuaged and dealt with by the poor. There wasn’t a better cinematic metaphor this year.
Anyone who knows writer-director Rian Johnson’s pre-Star Wars: The Last Jedi work understands the man knows how to play around with genres. Time travel (Looper), noir (Brick), the long con (The Brothers Bloom)—Johnson has tackled them all. For his latest, Knives Out, he took on the Agatha Christie-style whodunit, and the results were just as brilliant as before. It was funny, smart, surprising, and even a bit cuttingly political. It was that rarest of films: a good movie and a good time.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Welp, he stuck the landing. Going into Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the thing director J.J. Abrams said he was most worried about was providing a satisfying ending. He was, after all, not only concluding the trilogy he started with 2015’s The Force Awakens, but also the two trilogies that came before it. That’s a lot of weight to bear. Abrams bore it the best he could, wrapping up decades’ worth of stories—and fan expectations—with one final movie. Was it perfect? No. Did it lean a bit heavily on playing the Lucasfilm hits? Yes. But it was also a thrilling ride with some smart twists and a lot of heart. Fans couldn’t have asked for more.
Along with The Irishman, Marriage Story is Netflix’s other big swing at Oscar glory. Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, the film follows theater director Charlie (Adam Driver) and his actress wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) as they work through the dissolution of their marriage. It’s a heartbreaking look at how compassionate and cruel two people can be while enduring the pain of loss. It also has two of the better performances of the year.
Strippers, shakedowns, an Usher cameo. There’s a different version of Hustlers that’s just a low-rent Ocean’s knockoff. (Wait, that happened.) Thank the movie goddesses that it’s not. Under the sharp direction of Lorene Scafaria (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World), it’s a film that is holler-in-the-theater empowering while also being an insightful commentary on class and the things people feel compelled to do to survive. (Jennifer Lopez’s Peter Pan-esque monologue about ripping off the Wall Street bros who ripped off America is one for the ages.) With excellent performances by everyone from Lopez and Constance Wu to Cardi B, there was nothing else like it in multiplexes this year—and it was a long time coming.
After the massive, culture-shifting success of Get Out, everyone wondered what writer-director Jordan Peele would do next. That follow-up was Us, a similarly mind-bending horror flick about the haves and the have-nots articulated through a very creepy set of doppelgängers who show up to haunt a family on a summer vacation. Genuinely terrifying (no one will ever look at rabbits the same again) and deeply insightful, Us—like Get Out—was also one of the smartest movies of the year. It also had Lupita Nyong’o’s best performance(s) since 12 Years a Slave.
Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood
Getting this out of the way: Writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s latest is a bit too long and has a hyper-bombastic ending that feels a bit unearned. That said, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a rich, fictionalized version of the period that Charles Manson and his followers terrorized Los Angeles, told through the story of actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Like all Tarantino movies, it’s a love letter to cinema, and its twist on the Sharon Tate murders is downright heartbreaking.
No, Avengers: Endgame is not a film. It’s a popcorn superhero flick. But in the ever-growing catalog of popcorn superhero flicks, Avengers: Endgame, like Avengers: Infinity War before it, is incredibly ambitious. The crossover event to end all crossover events, it brought together more than a decades’ worth of movies—21 total—into one massive, mostly coherent. tear-jerking culmination. The jury is still out on whether it’s Oscar-worthy, but that ultimate battle against Thanos was something to behold.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
The Last Black Man in San Francisco encapsulates a lot of things—erasure of history and identity, the realities of gentrification, the transcendent nature of friendship under duress—but it makes its point in its title. As the Bay Area, once home to the “Harlem of the West,” is forced through changes faster than it can adapt to them—take, for example, the Compton’s Cafeteria riot, the gay rights movement, or the Beats—lost a lot of what made it brilliant. That includes most of the family of Jimmie Fails (played by Jimmie Fails, from a script he cowrote with director Joe Talbot), who have been forced to the edges of the city amid the real-estate boom. The tech industry is never mentioned directly, but the impact it’s had on the city is obvious in the shuttle buses in the streets and the passing references to landlord fires. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is about Fails’ attempt to reclaim his grandfather’s house in the Fillmore district, but it’s also a heartbreaking look at the quest to claim space. Put another way, in the words of Fails, “you don’t get to hate [San Francisco] unless you love it.”
Yes, The Irishman is a little long. Like three hours and 30 minutes long. (Say what you will about Netflix releasing Oscar bait, at least the streaming service provides the ability to pause for bathroom breaks and naps.) And maybe Anna Paquin should’ve had more lines—like any number higher than seven would’ve been fine. But it’s also an intense, and just tense, retelling of the life of Frank Sheeran (played by Robert De Niro), the alleged mob hitman and Jimmy Hoffa acolyte. Martin Scorsese pulled out all of his movie tricks for this one, and got Industrial Light & Magic to develop a whole new de-aging process to help him do it. Oh, and Joe Pesci’s performance as mobster Russell Bufalino is one of his best ever.
Director Olivia Wilde’s female-fronted high school comedy can’t make up for decades of bro-tastic coming-of-age movies, but dammit if it didn’t try. Set during the last hurrah before high school graduation, the film follows two, yes, bookish best friends—Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein)—as they try to actually party for once. It’s a smart, heartfelt hoot, and a movie that actually gets at all the bittersweet endings that happened at the conclusion of high school.
Writer-director Lulu Wang’s movie about a young woman (played to perfection by Awkwafina) going back to China to visit her ill grandmother is easily 2019’s best weep-in-the-theater film. Ostensibly a movie about one family’s attempt to keep their matriarch’s cancer diagnosis a secret from her, The Farewell is about the secrets and lies that bring families together, as well as pull them apart. It’s also about the lies everyone tells themselves just to cope. Equally wrenching and joyous, its arrival in the final weeks of summer was the perfect antidote to blockbuster fatigue.
How long has it been since you considered Adam Sandler: Serious Actor? Well, buckle up, partner, because he’s ready to ride. As New York City jeweler Howard Ratner, he’s a fast-talking dealmaker with a bit of a gambling problem and a family he’s not really attending to. He’s hard to root for, but watching him get close to ultimate victory and/or colossal defeat over and over again is wonderfully intense. By the third act, it’s utterly nerve-wracking—and ready to deliver one of the most surprising twists of the year.
Just kidding! But the hand work is exquisite.
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