The Best Films of 2019

It was a banner year for documentaries and an off year for animation. And Almodovar.

Sure, give Banderas a Best Actor nomination, but “Pain & Glory?” Meh.

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It was a year without Woody Allen, our first and not our last.

When we remember 2019 at the movies, we will remember a comic book movie that broke through, was actually about something important, and was one of the best-acted pictures of the year.

Martin Scorsese had the best year. No, I don’t think“The Irishman” is all that. But the man made a great, playful music doc (“Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story”). And the cinema’s greatest filmmaker/scholar presided over one of the great “rescue edits” in screen history, pulling a fine movie out of the debacle of “The Current War.”

Pity they didn’t bring him in for “The Rise of Skywalker,” or that middling Avengers movie lesser lights wet their pants over in the early summer.

It was a year of hidden gems, even if “Uncut Gems” wasn’t one. It’s a good movie, not hidden, but I’m not buying the Sandler hype — not for a second. Two such overlooked jewels were about Emily Dickinson (“A Quiet Passion,” “Wild Nights with Emily”).

“American Woman”should have reminded everybody how good an actress Sienna Miller is, and how rough life in the American working class still is. Nobody saw it, or “I See You” or “The Chambermaid,” and not that many saw “The Art of Self Defense” or “Mickey and the Bear,” either.

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The Best Netflix Movie wasn’t “Marriage Story,” although the scale of it — a character piece, all about performance, kitchen sink drama and acting — suits the streaming service better than the epics they keep signing blank checks for (“Roma” last year, “The Irishman” this year.). I’d say the same for “The Two Popes,” very much a filmed stage play — a two-hander, with two great actors carrying the picture onto screens big and small.

The BEST Netflix movie, and most Oscar-worthy ex-“Saturday Night Live” performance, was “Dolemite is My Name,” starring Eddie Murphy.

“Atlantics” is almost as good, a beautiful, impressionistic drama of love, human migration and modern Senegal.” Netflix should spend more money showing us the world, They certainly get more bang for their movie-making buck in Africa, Central and South America and the little-covered corners of Asia.

There were so many outstanding candidates for Best Documentary that I’m just going to pull them out for their own list.

“Where’s My Roy Cohn?” and “Honeyland”were the best documentaries, one an indictment-worthy bio-pic/political history, the other about a solitary beekeeper in the highlands of Macedonia. Fascinating.

“Apollo 11” is worthy of an Oscar nomination, an impressive recounting of “One small step” and the people who took it. A throwback to “American pride,” and what we’re still proud of.

“Rodents of Unusual Size”is the documentary you track down on streaming to have a chuckle learning about nutria and the bayous, bays and riverbanks these varmints have taken over.

“The Queen” was the most worthy “American history we know nothing about” doc, about the pre-history of drag queens, long before “La Cage” and RuPaul mainstreamed them into the culture.

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“Rolling Thunder Revue” and “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” were the best music docs. “Echoes in the Canyon” was better than that David Crosby one that got wide play. I forget the title.

Be Natural”is the best documentary about movie-making in many a year, a film that rewrites film history in telling us the story of Alice Guy-Blache, the first female film director, a Frenchwoman who learned her craft in France during the last days of the Victorian Era, and made a mark in America as well. And then was forgotten.

And you can toss a coin to decide which of the two excellent documentaries with “Midnight” in the title was best –– “Midnight Traveler,”about refugees fleeing Afghanistan, or “Midnight Family,” about the Wild West of ambulance drivers in Mexico City.

The best comic book picture is listed below, but “Captain Marvel” was fun enough, marginally more fun than the latest “Spider-Man.”

But let’s get to the main event, shall we? The best pictures I saw in 2019 are, in my way of thinking, the movies I will come back to and watch again down the road.

I have never watched “The Shape of Water” a second time, not bothered streaming “Roma” again, not burned through “Green Book” or for that matter any comic book movie of the past 20 years in a repeat viewing. “Rogue One” is the lone “Star Wars” picture that passes this test. “Dunkirk” I must have seen half a dozen times, five times more than I’ve seen “A Star is Born.”

I lean towards period pieces, historical films and “movies about something.”

I will watch “Best of Enemies” again — with relatives. And “Dark Waters.” I’m looking forward to seeing everything on the list below a second time.

What movies are worth rewatching, which ones have the best chance of “holding up,” as we say?

The best pictures of 2019 are…

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“Ford v Ferrari” may be too much “a guy’s movie,” but I found it thrilling, entertaining and perfectly-cast and acted, a rousing road racing tale built to stand the test of time. It’s already the best picture ever in that narrow genre. I think it’s the best picture of the year. Oscar ignores the work of Bale, Damon and James Mangold and his team (funniest ever turn by Tracy Letts, BTW) at its own (irrelevant) peril.

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“Parasite” brought the satiric wit and storytelling drive of Bong Joon Ho to the world. He’s not just for sci-fi or horror cultists any more. This is a masterpiece and the best foreign language film of 2019. It’s a Best Picture contender, too, in my book.

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“Joker” let us see Joaquin Phoenix pick at the open scab of mental illness, and the dangers in not addressing it. I don’t know if Todd Phillips will ever top this harrowing, timely and topical take on a comic book villain. But “The Hangover” movies will not be his legacy. Not any more.

4

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“Rosie” shows us new faces of homelessness, a working class Irish family stuck, between homes, in housing-poor Ireland. Nobody saw this Roddy Doyle adaptation, no awards groups are remembering Sarah Greene’s wrenching depiction of how exhausting and hope-crushing homelessness is, no matter where you live.

5

“Dark Waters” shows us what a good actor does with “Marvel Money” and Marvel movie-making clout. Mark Ruffalo was a fine dramatic actor long before “The Hulk” came along. Here’s an issues-oriented drama where he gets back to his First Best Destiny. Poisoning the poor for profit goes on trial in West Virginia in a movie Ruffalo has turned into a cause. His best performance ever, and that’s saying something. Bill Camp, the King of today’s Character Actors, is stunning in it, as well.

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“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” strikes me as a movie that’s been discounted for being too “on the nose.” Tom Hanks, America’s most beloved actor, playing the only saint American television has produced, Fred Rogers? Too easy. Director Marielle Heller (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”) makes it look that way in a lovely, emotional portrait of damaged souls and the man on the TV who taught us the importance of empathy and compassion and humanity. Ignore Hanks if you want, Academy. He has Oscars. If you skip nominating Heller, you’ve blown it.

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“Gloria Bell” is a remake of a splendid Chilean character-study, an intimate, depressed single-over-50 life examined in painful, illusive detail, with Julianne Moore the woman lost and looking for love that will take her back to her disco-bedecked youth. Oscar won’t remember her in this. You should.

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“Little Women” puts Greta Gerwig in the first rank of American movie-makers, an actress-turned-director (“Lady Bird”) of exquisite taste and dramatic, comic and casting instincts. How she made this legendary, oft-filmed weeper a near romp, full of life and wit and warmth and sentiment, should be taught in film schools. Shortlist Gerwig for anything dramatic or comic you want to put in cinemas, because she’s the closest thing to a sure thing this side of Jordan Peele.

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“Honey Boy” is the movie that reminds us of the promise of Shia LaBeouf, with a searing semi-fictionalized account of the life it took to earn that promise. You will never look at child actors the same way again.

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“A Hidden Life” is gorgeous enough and deeply thoughtful enough to put Terrence Malick back on one’s pantheon of greatest living filmmakers. I’d shrugged him off with “Tree of Life” and all that’s followed that over-praised piffle. This is still packed with Malick indulgences — nature shots, repetitive dialogue that doesn’t so much move a story forward and lock us into the story’s vibe. But it’s about something — resisting evil when all around you are waving the flag and embracing totalitarianism. August Diehl and Valerie Pachner are stunning as an Austrian Alpine couple whose love we believe, and believe in, as it is put to the ultimate test.

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“Clemency” lives or dies on a performance by Alfre Woodard, giving a somber, internalized take on a prison warden presiding over the one execution that could break her spirit for good. I used to call Julianne Moore “the best actress to never win an Oscar.” Alfre carries that torch, now. This is an acting clinic.

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“1917” asks you to embrace a gimmick, that this real-time/WWI in the Trenches melodrama was shot in one continuous take. It just looks like that. Toss that aside and find yourself immersed in a ticking clock thriller set in a world of trenches, trench-foot, unspeakable carnage and “sacrifice” that sure as hell feels like lives squandered.

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“But but BUT,” you say…what about “The Farewell?” What about “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood,” “Queen & Slim,” “Waves,” “Just Mercy,” “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” “Ash is the Purest White,” or even “Best of Enemies,” “I See You,””Swingin’ Safari,” “Vita & Virginia?”

Let others make the cases for some or all of those. All are worth tracking down if you missed them, worthwhile in their own right. And they all stuck in my mind after seeing them, but not in the way the films I singled out for my best-of-the-best do.

And you’ve got to draw the line somewhere.

Finally, let me note that a tweet by Elijah Wood informs this year’s decision on what sort of “list” to whip up. In recent years, I’ve dug into “most overrated” and “worst films” lists with a lot of gusto. They seem to be lists more readers respond to, as everybody takes a shot at “ten best” or whatever number one comes up with.

But on seeing such a “worst list” turn up on Twitter, Mr. Wood had the common sense to ask the really important question about it.

“What good does this do?”

So let somebody else make fun of the worst “X-Men,” the last “Rambo,” the joyless and unnecessary “Zombieland” sequel, and so on. Not me. Not this time.

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2 Responses to The Best Films of 2019

  1. Mo says:

    Roger, that was a good read as always. Slight correction: Elijah Wood’s tweet was “What good does this do?” (https://twitter.com/elijahwood/status/1203355647976173568), in response to a publication’s “worst movies” list.
    On that note, thank you, Roger, for using your platform and medium for good. Looking forward to more of the same in 2020.

  2. Keith says:

    Nice. We share several picks this year.

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