Recency bias is a tough firewall to fight through, but even if you keep your wits about you when digesting the year that was 2019, curbing your desire to be superlative about things you’ve just seen, it sure seems like this is a special year and a capstone on a strange, transitional decade of film. It feels like the perfect end-of-a-decade year, like ’89 and ’99, specifically. Big movies wobbled, adult movies surged, and it appears some sense of balance may be returning to the theaters as the Avengers and the Skywalker’s exit stage left… for a little while, anyway. It’s not all doom and gloom, especially when I consider my ten favorite movies of the year and have to make some tough cuts. A lot of years, especially recent years, getting to ten has been a chore. 2019, however, seems to have just about anything for anyone; here are my ten favorites…
10. Ad Astra – Sad Brad Ad Astra may not be able to pull itself free of James Gray’s dour tone, but it has a tremendous amount going for it. Brad Pitt’s performance is, honestly, more than just looking downtrodden; his son-of-a-legend, Roy McBride, is barely keeping it together. His father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), left him behind, and pursued intelligent life beyond Neptune, and it clearly isn’t setting well with him. The business of Roy’s journey from the commercialized moon to the eerily occupied Mars is hypnotic, and the best part of the film.
9. Richard Jewell – Once again, Clint Eastwood has expertly snuck openhearted empathy into his story of a common citizen under threat of authoritative power. This time, it’s Paul Walter Hauser playing Eastwood’s unlikely hero, a law enforcement bootlicker we all recognize from times in our own life. The difference here is, Hauser and Eastwood work hard to earn Jewell’s sympathy, and it works in a film that is frustrating and emotionally upsetting from start to finish.
8. The Lighthouse – Dirty and messy and short and noisy, Robert Eggers’ follow up to The Witch is another period specific journey into hell. Eggers whips up a Herman Melville fever dream swirling around our two stars (and the only people in the movie) Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, the latter of whom totally disappears into the role so deftly you almost feel as if the actor himself was left stranded in a lighthouse at the edge of the world for three months leading up to filming.
7. Dragged Across Concrete – S. Craig Zahler’s provocative cop noir has much to say, and says it at its own pace. Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn are perfectly paired as a couple of detectives who find themselves suspended after a video of them roughing up a suspect goes viral. They decide, then, to track down some illegal funds from a criminal enterprise and make up for their lost wages. Of course, things go oh-so-very wrong, but they go wrong in that sick and twisted Zahler way, with rich dialogue and shocking moments of violence.
6. Parasite – So many films aspire to be what Parasite truly is, which is a film that totally changes pace, tone, and arguably changes genre on the audience right in the middle, upending everything and starting anew. Any general description of the film cannot prepare an audience for the twists and turns that lie within. It’s the most surprising film of the year, one of the best, and should be recognized as such this spring.
5. Uncut Gems – The Safdie Brothers have officially become the fresh new Big Apple Auteurs with Uncut Gems. Much like Parasite, The Safdie’s film keeps the audience off balance, never able to predict the direction it’s going, or why. Daniel Lopatin’s score, a mixture of melodic and low-buzzing techno, is serene, and as good as Adam Sandler is as the shifty jeweler Howard, Julia Fox is better. She deserves a supporting actress nomination as Howard’s devoted and disarmingly intelligent Julia.
4. The Irishman – It seems that Martin Scorsese’s entire career – or perhaps more specifically his career of directing gangster stories – had led to this. The Irishman captures an epic scope, but tells a devastatingly human tale of obligations on a much smaller scale, and the meta quality of these acting legends all joining forces – probably for one last time – cannot be overlooked. De Niro and Pacino are brilliant, but Joe Pesci’s quiet turn as Russell Bufalino is a complete about face from everything he’s done with Scorsese in the past, and it should be recognized as one of the best performances of the year.
3. Her Smell – I didn’t expect much of anything when I sat down to watch Elisabeth Moss in Alex Ross Perry’s intimate, structured look at the evolution of a troubled rock star. Two plus hours later, I think I finally blinked. Elisabeth Moss is transcendent as Becky Something, in a role that should, one day, in a fair and just world, become a grunge pop icon among certain circles. From exhaustive to upsetting, to eventually hopeful yet hesitant, every emotion has its chance to shine through in Moss’s dominant performance.
2. Ford v Ferrari – Yes, it is a dad movie, so I’m predisposed to fall in love with the pure mid-century American nostalgia that is coursing through the very alive, very thrilling veins of James Mangold Hollywood throwback. Both Damon and Bale are so great, you take them for granted, and you’re swept up into the propulsive action from the opening shot. Beyond our two very strong leads, though, is easily the second best supporting cast of the year, with stellar turns from Tracy Letts as Henry Ford (Just the second), Jon Bernthal as Lee Iacocca, and Caitriona Balfe breaking up the boys club marvelously as the strong Mollie Miles.
1. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood – We begin and end with Pitt. When I walked out of the theater in late July, I knew no matter what came out down the road, it wouldn’t top Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist ode to late ’60s Tinseltown. It’s a lived in movie, a “love letter” for lack of a better term; but Tarantino is more equipped to pen this letter for this era than just about any filmmaker out there with the desire to reach back into their childhood and honor the cinema and television that shaped their lives. Pitt and DiCaprio are special, and everyone in this endless roster of talents old and new is absolutely in sync with the special, textured world of Tarantino’s world. It’s a landmark achievement.