On the eve of the new Roaring ’20s, here are my 10 favorite movies of 2019. Please be advised that my comments contain mild spoilers and should be read with mild caution. You have been warned.
Ever since I saw Bong Joon-Ho’s gonzo black comedy back in October, one thing’s been bugging me: Are the final 15 minutes real or a fantasy? Following the climactic scene in the backyard, is Ki-Woo waking up in a hospital—or in heaven? After what happens to him at the top of the stairs, is it remotely plausible that he’d even survive the ambulance ride, let alone return to his old self in relatively short order?
I don’t know what the correct answer is. My suspicion is that there isn’t one. Like many great movies, this one is quite purposefully open to interpretation, and seems to function equally well taken literally or as a metaphor. In any case, this demented Korean social satire will be around for quite a while—at least so long as the world remains divided between the oblivious, opulent rich and the embittered, vengeful poor.
- Marriage Story
I don’t know when exactly I decided that I never want to get married, although it’s quite possible it occurred roughly halfway through this wrenching film. We’ve all heard the joke that divorce is expensive because it’s worth it, but director Noah Baumbach and actors Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver seem to be arguing precisely the opposite—that the severing of marital vows is a slow-motion tragedy that brings out the absolute worst in all parties involved and, as such, should be avoided at all costs.
Having fallen head-over-heels for Johansson in “Lost in Translation” in 2003 and Driver in “Paterson” in 2017, I was amazed and delighted by what both were able to pull off here, in the two most emotionally naked performances of the year. That’s to say nothing of their lawyers, played with gusto by Alan Alda, Ray Liotta and the national treasure that is Laura Dern.
- The Irishman
Maybe it was the simple fact that Joe Pesci has appeared in a grand total of four movies since the dawn of the 21st century that made his presence here so unexpectedly moving—particularly in the later scenes, when he is rotting away in the big house, unable to enjoy bread dipped in wine the way he used to in his glory days. The whole movie has a one-last-hurrah feel vis-à-vis Pesci, Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel and the master himself, Martin Scorsese. The inclusion of Al Pacino—who, inexplicably, has never worked with Scorsese before—is merely the cherry on top.
- Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood
How typical of Quentin Tarantino that, in a movie purportedly about Charlie Manson in the summer of ’69, Manson himself is onscreen for all of 10 seconds, never to be seen again. Tarantino has always been more interested in the characters on the far edge of the action, who in this case include a soon-to-be-washed-up action film star (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his ever on-call stunt man and driver (Brad Pitt). The more you know about what went down on Cielo Drive 50 years ago last August, the more you’ll appreciate what doesn’t go down here.
- Little Women
It is with some embarrassment that I confess I’ve never read Louisa May Alcott’s epochal novel upon which this adaptation is based, apart from frantically rifling through the first few chapters in the days before its Christmas premiere. In retrospect, entering Greta Gerwig’s vision of 19th century Concord, Massachusetts, in relative ignorance was a propitious choice, allowing me to experience the world of the March sisters with fresh eyes and a dearth of unmeetable expectations. As such, I was able to simply luxuriate in a panoply of sublime and joyous performances by several of the English-speaking world’s finest actors and actresses, including (once again) America’s sweetheart, Laura Dern, as Marmee.
Olivia Wilde’s raucous high school comedy has been described as “‘Superbad’ with women”—a shorthand that is admirably concise but only superficially correct. While the earlier movie followed a pair of high school seniors in their desperate and puerile attempts to lose their virginity before graduation, Wilde’s film zeroes in on the keen insight—often discovered too late—that one can be a straight-A student with a bright future while indulging in the odd adolescent debauchery in the present. Such is the circle that two Ivy League-bound snobs (Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever) belatedly attempt to square. Odd adolescent debauchery ensues, not to mention the most slay-tastic karaoke scene this side of Bill Murray.
- A Hidden Life
An incandescently lush and majestic epic by Terrence Malick—based on a true story—about a humble Austrian farmer who, as a matter of conscience, refuses to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler or fight alongside the Nazis during World War II. He is played with bottomless humanity by August Diehl, who is perhaps best known in the U.S. for his small but memorable role in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds as—wait for it—a proud and devious member of the Third Reich.
- Knives Out
I must disclose a personal bias on this one, as at least one key sequence was filmed less than two miles from my house; plus, I have encountered the actual mansion that serves as the central character of this marvelous wind-up toy of a whodunit. That said, I am quite certain Daniel Craig’s ridiculous Southern accent and the ingenious mechanics of the Agatha Christie-meets-“Clue” plot—not to mention its unexpectedly biting commentary on America’s attitude toward immigrants—would’ve won me over regardless.
- Pain and Glory
No one can break your heart while dazzling your senses like Pedro Almodóvar, who here employs Antonio Banderas as an apparent stand-in for himself, playing a movie director in his twilight years reflecting on his life while frantically plotting some sort of comeback. It’s all very Fellini-esque, and who couldn’t use a little Fellini every now and again?
- Apollo 11
In a year chock-full of tributes, remembrances and recreations of the triumphant climax of the Space Race that occurred a half-century ago last July, it seems only right that the finest artifact to emerge from this anniversary year of the moon landing would be nothing less than the real thing: A documentary consisting entirely of original, soup-to-nuts contemporaneous footage of the successful Apollo 11 mission, from the minutiae at Mission Control to Neil Armstrong’s and Buzz Aldrin’s personal home movies from the lunar surface. With no talking heads or historical perspective of any sort, one has the surreal impression of watching events unfold in real time—as, of course, they once did.