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Dec 31 2019
25 Best Movies Of 2019, Plus: Performances Of The Year Comments (0)

Anigif_sub-buzz-1348-1564422551-3Brad Pitt doing his best Robert Redford/Little Fauss and Big Halsy (1970) look (GIF via GIPHY)

Some of the leading contenders in all the major Oscar categories are rather traditional, but 2019 was an exciting year for challenging stories told from fresh perspectives.

IMG_5748Visible lives (Image via Amazon)

Watching as many Oscar-eligible films as I have was something I did ahead of voting in the Dorian Awards as a member of GALECA. It was a pleasure to do, and a reminder that films can evade even a film buff's radar — and that some of the best run the risk of being the ones that got away.

Giphy(GIF via GIPHY)

My picks for the Best 25 Films of 2019:

(25) Bombshell (Lionsgate) — I did not expect to like Jay Roach's MV5BMWEyMTkyMDAtMDkwNC00Zjk3LTk5ZGQtZmY1MTIxMGUwY2I2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXRyYW5zY29kZS13b3JrZmxvdw@@._V1_take on the Roger Ailes sexual harassment scandal at Fox News as much as I did, but I think the film's use of a fictional character — nimbly played by having-a-great-year-again Margot Robbie — is a shining example of how to correctly summarize reality without wholesale creating it for the sake of a movie about a real series of events. True enough that Nicole Kidman's Gretchen Carlson fades and Charlize Theron's Megyn Kelly is as much a triumph of good prosthetics as of good acting (meaning she's got both), but the story is told in such a way that I did not feel manipulated to consider the women of Fox — who, after all, work for a misogynist cesspool — heroes for speaking out about sexual impropriety. I was continually struck by the realization that Bombshell is filled with bad people who are less bad than the film's worse people, but the storytelling mimicked the fast-paced flow of information, an appealingly gossipy pipeline, within any corporate setting, making it crackle. As in any behemoth capitalist venture, the troops fight for the brand, but also can't help turning on it, watching in bemused terror as it crumples. (Spoiler alert: Fox News survived, Ailes did not.)

Tumblr_pq6298OEbs1qkzlddo7_500Dying to hang out (GIF via GIPHY)

(24) Paddleton (Netflix) — Director Alex Lehmann's Paddleton, scripted by Lehmann and Mark Duplass, offers you that film you've always wanted: a buddy comedy about dying of stomach cancer. Duplass stars as a man facing his final days with the at times aggressively oblivious assistance of his neighbor and friend (Ray Romano, in a performance that should be somewhere on the Oscar spectrum). Like Burt Reynolds's The End (1978) without the belly laughs, it is an unexpectedly touching portrait of male bonding, of men who love each other and are nonromantic soulmates, and functions as a snap poll of whether the Orson Welles quote “We're born alone, we live alone, we die alone” is necessarily true.

(23) Dolemite Is My Name (Netflix) — One hell of an entertaining biopic, Dolemite-is-my-namecomplete with an over-the-top underdog more memorable than The Disaster Artist's (2017) Tommy Wiseau, Dolemite Is My Name is one of Eddie Murphy's best films, and is certainly his most nuanced comedy. The story of the late cinematic entrepreneur Rudy Ray Moore (Murphy), whose black-targeted films (starting with 1975's Dolemite) spoke to a generation of moviegoers, this movie benefits from a warm performance by its lead and by Da'Vine Joy Randolph, not to mention a hysterically flamboyant turn by Wesley Snipes as real-life actor D'urville Martin. I can take or leave Eddie Murphy, who is back to saying he doesn't regret his inexcusable AIDS jokes of the early 80s, but here, I will take him.

Giphy-2King (-sized bed) (GIF via Amazon)

(22) Brittany Runs a Marathon (Amazon) — Paul Downs Colaizzo directs Jillian Bell in this story of a self-deprecating slouch who discovers self-respect while slowly training herself to be a serious runner. Bell is utterly believable (she pulled a reverse De Niro for the project, dropping 40 lbs. across filming) filling the running shoes of the real-life Brittany O'Neill, Colaizzo's roommate; the quirky cast (including Brittany's frustratingly realistic on-again, off-again romantic entanglement with a sidekick played by Utkarsh Ambudkar) fleshes things out. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more satisfying movie about hashtag goals.

(21) The Peanut Butter Falcon (Roadside Attractions) — A perfect Falcon2 children's movie masquerading as an edgy indie, The Peanut Butter Falcon, directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, is only the year's second-best Shia LaBeouf film — but that's saying something when the #1 slot belongs to Honey Boy. In this one, a young man with Down syndrome (Zack Gottsagen) longs to meet a low-rent wrestler by the name of Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church) who he has seen on old reruns. Busting out of the home in which he is unfairly institutionalized, and hotly pursued by a well-meaning attendant (Dakota Johnson), he goes on the road with a local thief (LaBeouf) who is escaping a richly deserved ass-whoopin' at the hands of a gang of bullies. It's not an overstatement to say their journey has Mark Twain magic, and LaBeouf — who made headlines when he was arrested during filming — is at the top of his game, presenting a character who is the perfect combo of wily, none too bright, charming and reluctantly decent.

EKqKm1rXsAApjx6The year's best poster art (Image via NEON)

(20) Clemency (NEON) — In Clemency, written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu, Alfre Woodard gives the performance of her stellar career as Bernadine Williams, a warden presiding over a Death Row prison. Her sense of duty threatens to drain the life from her marriage, and her sense of self. Supported by Aldis Hodge as a possibly innocent man with a date to meet his maker, Danielle Brooks as the estranged girlfriend who gave him up to the police and Wendell Pierce as the warden's suffering husband, Woodard delivers a master class on how to carry a film and present an emotionally complex character. This suspenseful work is the movie about criminal justice, the death penalty and prison reform that America needs, yet it's never preachy. Superb.

(19) Invisible Life (Amazon) — The Brazilian entry for Best International Feature Film at the Oscars (which is likely to be shut out in a competitive year), Invisible Life is the 04_THE_INVISIBLE_LIFE_OF_EURIDICE_GUSMAO_©Bruno-Machado film adaptation of a popular novel by Martha Batalha. Directed by Karim Aïnouz from a screenplay he wrote with Murilo Hauser and Inés Bortagaray, the movie is a portrait of two sisters (Carol Duarte as naive Eurídice, Julia Stockler as impulsive Guida) so close that when fate — and their horrendous father (Antônio Fonseca) — intervenes to keep them apart, they never stop dreaming of each other, even as they unwittingly begin to live out their lives much closer to each other than they could ever guess. Keeping the schmaltz down to a bare minimum, the director (whose status as a visual artist is evidenced on the screen), provides splashes of reality that cut up the nostalgia, most effectively in the form of no-nonsense Philo (Bárbara Santos), whose observations slice open the proceedings from time to time. When Guida, who is shell-shocked at having given birth out of wedlock with no support and no money, staggers to a club just one night later, she is greeted upon her return with Philo's summary, “So, you shit out a fetus and still went out to boogie?” The women in this film are doing all they can to hold on, often to each other.

Luce+(1)It's in the bag. (Image via NEON)

(18) Luce (NEON) — This thriller, co-written and by J.C. Lee and Julius Onah and directed by Onah, is modern, provocative and mercurial, topical without sacrificing its DNA as a suburban thriller. The titular character, played with sensational restraint by Kelvin Harrison Jr., is a teen adopted from war-torn Eritrea in Africa, where he was a child revolutionary. Now, he is his class valedictorian, and a figure in the community who is seen as a powerful symbol of success. When Luce's tough-as-nails teacher (an outstanding Octavia Spencer) alerts his parents (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) that he wrote a disturbing essay seeming to embrace violence — and that she found fireworks in his locker — a series of events will have them questioning whether Luce is the kid they raised .. or is still the one they found. The film effortlessly probes race and class from all angles, and keeps the stakes sky-high every nervous step of the way.

Giphy-5You can ring Gloria Bell ... (GIF via GIPHY)

(17) Gloria Bell (A24) — In a year filled with small, quirky films about complicated women, don't forget to take Gloria Bell for a spin. This English-language remake by Sebastián Lelio of his 2013 Argentinian film Gloria (written by Lelio and Alice Johnson Boher) features a magnificent performance by Julianne Moore, one of the best actors of her generation, with strong support by John Turturro, in a return to form that deserved more awards buzz. The midlife crises captured here are uncomfortably real, and Gloria's passion for disco is transcendent, a reflection of her thirst to remain not young, but true to herself. (You may have a flashback to 2014's Maps to the Stars when you see Julianne Moore rocking out while driving.) Gloria Bell also has one of the best hell-yeah moments since Angela Bassett's in Waiting to Exhale (1995). When Gloria exhales, you will, too.

(16) Monos (NEON) — In a stunning Monos-photodevelopment, one of the absolutely best foreign-language films of the year, Monos from director Alejandro Landes, is not shortlisted for that Oscars category, meaning it will not be recognized. Don't let that discourage you from seeking out this modern-day Lord of the Flies, about a rag-tag group of teen revolutionaries protecting a prisoner, Doctora (Julianne Nicholson), in remote Colombia. Their struggle to survive as guerrillas is starkly contrasted with their juvenile distractions, affections and fantasies. Nicholson's character brings out the little soldiers' individual personalities, and offers the youth cast — Moisés Arias, Sofía Buenaventura, Julian Giraldo, Karen Quintero, Laura Castrillón, Deiby Rueda, Esneider Castro and Paul Cubides — opportunities to shine. The situation is desperate and convincingly claustrophobic in this truly suspenseful drama people by tiny terrorists you keep hoping will snap out of their militant mentality, even if it seems clear it will never happen, and even if it seems clear there are no good alternatives. One of the year's most exciting and interesting finales.

(15) Diane (IFC) — Kent Jones trains his Diane-movieunflinching documentarian's eye on the life of title character Diane, played — in a career-best performance — by Mary Kay Place. A woman who seems addicted to selflessly helping others, though her life story is not as easy to imagine as we initially suspect. Spent from dealing with a son who boomerangs from heroin addiction to Evangelical religious convictions, Diane is a woman who moves from point A to point B, and back to point A, but Jones's script does clue us in on how she came to be, evoking if not sympathy, a marvelous, transcendent sort of understanding. I was left thinking: If only Diane and Gloria Bell would go out dancing together. As a bonus, this poetic movie also features the great actors Deirdre O'Connell, Estelle Parsons, Andrea Martin, Glynnis O'Connor, Phyllis Somerville and Joyce Van Patten.

WAVES_FP_07798Sister, having to do it for herself (Image via A24)

(14) Waves (A24) — Written and directed by Trey Edward Shults (previously best known for his 2017 horror flick It Comes at Night), Waves is perfectly titled. It begins as what feels like another Euphoria or a standard cautionary tale about drug abuse, then artfully somersaults into an exploration of race, family, success, sex, masculinity and more, washing from one pressure point to another. In his second great performance of the year, Kelvin Harrison Jr. is Tyler, a high school wrestler slated for glory who is socked with a series of troubling roadblocks. His father (Sterling K. Brown) is no help, and his decisions are catastrophic. Just when the film seems to be settling into Tyler's story, it shifts to his sister Emily (Taylor Russell) and how she deals with their crumbling home life, including a budding relationship with wrestler Luke (Lucas Hedges). A compelling and sweeping story featuring some of the finest ensemble work of the year, Waves is unapologetically emotional and devoid of any agenda, other than a desire to unflinchingly see what happens next in life, and what happens when we confront our realities head-on.

(13) Atlantics (Netflix) — One of the most surprising films of the year, this Senegalese drama from director Mati Diop (from her screenplay with Olivier Demangel) is drenched in film noir atmosphere and dread, following Merlin_164171868_ea0ff558-c936-41c5-9178-c542bd98697e-articleLargemagnetic Mame Bineta Sane as Ada, a young girl longing to be reunited with her true love, Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré). Sweet-talking Souleiman has left town to seek his fortune, taking off on a perilous Atlantic voyage with several other young men off the coast of Dakar. The risk seems to be better than continuing their jobs helping to build a massive new tower, especially since they haven't been paid, but Ada is devastated to learn Souleiman won't be coming back. Or will he? The less said the better, but this darkly beautiful film feels like a contemporary classic. I was particularly taken with Ada's vain, materialistic friend Fanta (Aminata Kane), who is definitely living her best death.

00-lead-brandySayuri as Brandy was a scenery-chewer. (Image via Columbia)

(12) Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood (Columbia) — Quentin Tarantino was back in 2019 with his most self-indulgent, yet entertaining, yarn since Jackie Brown (1997). Actually, the Tarantino film most comparable to Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, his fictionalization of the Sharon Tate story, is clearly Inglourious Basterds (2009), and in truth I would have liked this movie far more had its gimmick not already been deployed 10 years ago. But that aside, Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood offers Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt A-plus parts and ample opportunity S-l300 to act their hearts out with old-fashioned swagger, especially in a classic scene between DiCaprio and Julia Butters, playing a precocious child actor. Speaking of which, fanboy Tarantino's embrace and re-creation and in some cases brazen fabrication of '50s and '60s westerns, actors, TV shows and even products (rat-flavored dog food!) are giddily on display every minute of the film, making it a Hollywood film about Hollywood that any like-minded film buff would enjoy. Margot Robbie's casting as Sharon Tate (who you may have heard died in 1968) initially seemed off, but she wound up embodying her so beautifully that actual footage of Tate from The Wrecking Crew (1968) is used without causing a double-take that the woman watching “herself” in it is an entirely different person.

(11) Honey Boy (Amazon) — I created and edited a teen-entertainment magazine at which I worked for 14 years, from 1998. C9ac6eb4-3672-4b9f-bf41-7b30722561a1During that time, we worked with Shia LaBeouf, who was the winning star of Disney Channel's Even Stevens (2000-2003), even sending him for a shoot at Disney California Adventure with fellow newcomers Hilary Duff and Kyla Pratt. I'd heard he had a freaky dad, but never in my wildest imagination did I think he had as twisted a childhood as the admittedly autobiographical Honey Boy suggests. The film, directed by Alma Har'el from LaBeouf's script, allows the troubled actor to show where he came from, and explain why we read about him in the news in situations that put to the test the old saying about how publicity is never bad. Playing James Lort, the kind of messy, sex-offender stage dad LaBeouf himself had, he is terrifyingly flawed and Oscar-worthy, as is Noah Jupe, who plays Otis Lort, Shia's younger self. Knowing the backstory is gossip-level intriguing, but the film stands alone as a fascinating peek behind the Disney facade that a generation of kids bought into. It is a powerful reminder of the fragility of childhood and its unfortunate tendency to imprint into our future selves all the worst of what we experience then.

Film2-1-8e1546afbafdfd51Bee picture (Image via NEON)

(10) Honeyland (NEON) — The documentary of the year, the Macedonian production Honeyland is brilliantly directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, and exquisitely photographed by Fejmi Daut Screen Shot 2019-12-31 at 3.36.03 PMand Samir Ljuma, all of whom deserve any honors they score. Hatidze Muratova is a never-married woman in her fifties who is working as a beekeeper to support herself and her dying mother Nazife. To call their relationship dysfunctional seems trite, but its push and pull amid a hardscrabble setting   recalls Grey Gardens (1975), minus any Grand Guignol grandstanding on the filmmakers' part. When a Turkish family arrives and attempts to beat her at her own game, Hatidze's process, her delicate and expert planning, are knocked off track. The film manages to be stunningly beautiful while documenting a dying tradition so carefully it feels at times we are watching it die before our eyes, in real time. Hatidze is an open book, and her struggle becomes ours; one we can walk away from, but one she must go on enduring. You'll never forget her, and it should not be lost on anyone watching that the way she depends upon bees is a metaphor for the planet's reliance on that invaluable species.

Giphy-2The chaud must go on! (GIF via GIPHY)

(9) Portrait of a Lady on Fire (NEON) — Written and directed by Céline Sciamma, Portrait of a Lady on Fire sketches the aching longing 0018944d-448a-45ea-9bef-3c89f613a693between a journeyman portraitist (Noémie Merlant) and her unwilling subject (Adèle Haenel) in 18th-century France. Marianne (Merlant) has arrived in the guise of an attendant to daughter of aristocracy Héloïse (Haenel), who has insisted to her countess mother (a splendid Valeria Golino) that she will never pose. Fine! Marianne will simply stare at her over the course of her time in the household and paint secretly at night — secrets are so much more fun anyway. Marianne's observer's eye and the predatory nature of her duty contribute to the feeling that her relationship with Héloïse is unfolding like a game of cat and mouse. When the cat finally eats the mouse, it's a Desert Hearts (1985)-level release. Most miraculously, Sciamma manages to keep this visual chess game going at a pleasingly glacial pace for two solid hours, and always shoots it minimalistically, which complements its soulful quality. Shockingly, the film was not put forth by France for Oscar consideration as Best International Feature Film; the fine Les Misérables will have that honor. Hopefully, Lady will slide into some other mentions — maybe even Best Director, Best Actress and/or Best Picture.

Why-Americans-Love-Watching-Married-Couples-fight-marriage-story-gq-december-2019Whose side are you on, anyway? (GIF via GIPHY)

(8) Marriage Story (Netflix) — An updated Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), Noah Baumbach's divorce drama Marriage Story is already engendering backlash for being a drama about well-off white people bickering. It's more than that. It's a beautifully written and observed piece about what brings us together, and what remains when our bond grows brittle and shatters. Baumbach's script is a revelation (and a likely Oscar nominee or winner), but so are the powerful performances by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, both at their best, whose characters we alternately root for or despise as if we are breaking up with each of them ourselves. That fight scene! That show tune scene! Laura Dern and Alan Alda make the most of well-crafted parts as lawyers, one a shark (Dern, uncomfortably close to her work on Big Little Lies from 2017-present) and one a confoundingly laissez-faire pushover (Alda) ... or is that wisdom? Do not sleep on the work by Julie Hagerty as a mom who refuses to choose sides and Ray Liotta as a counselor who swims in the same school as Dern's character. If the mounting backlash to the film doesn't damage it, it could sweep the major categories at the Oscars in February. P.S. If you missed Baumbach's The Meyerowitz Stories (2017), as I did until recently ... it's even better.

Giphy-3What would Cesar Romero do? (GIF via GIPHY)

(7) Joker (Warner Bros.) — I'm Team Scorsese in that I am simply not made for superhero movies. With the possible exceptions of the Cathy Lee Crosby Wonder Woman (1974; made for TV), the Christopher Reeve Superman (1978), Flash Gordon (1980) and Deadpool (2016), I tend to tune out anything too comic bookish. Therefore, I was reluctant to give Joker, the billion-dollar-grossing white-rage flick directed by Todd Phillips of (ugh!) The Hangover Trilogy (2009-2013) fame from his script with Scott Silver, a fair shot. I'm glad I relented, because this is not a Rev_1_JOK_Trailer_2_0443_High_Res_JPEG__1_.0 superhero movie. Yes, there is a Batman vignette toward the end, and yes, Joaquin Phoenix plays the one and only Joker, but aside from that, this movie has much more in common with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and The King of Comedy (1983) than movies about dudes in tights. A simmering, searing story of how little guys and misfits can be pushed into becoming psychopaths, Joker is a mind-fuck from minute one, and a harrowing look at populist anger. Perhaps the most memorable scene occurs when Joker snaps and murders an odious bully, stranding an acquaintance who happens to be a little person (Leigh Gill) in the room with him. The film makes a visual joke out of the man's inability to reach a doorknob in order to get away, but rather than being a cheap shot, I felt it was a cunning way of putting the audience in that terrified witness's place, ratcheting up the suspense and his feeling of helplessness in the face of an unhinged loner, and, indeed, our collective helplessness in the face of a society of unhinged loners. I absolutely loved this movie; I can almost forgive Phillips “for paging Dr. Faggot.” Almost.

Giphy-4At a time when girl power was in short supply, in was in their DNA. (GIF via Columbia)

(6) Little Women (Columbia) — Following her stunning solo-directing debut Lady Bird (2017), a contemporary film imbued with her voice, it is perhaps surprising that Greta Gerwig would choose to adapt for the screen Sub-buzz-4691-1565724776-1 and direct another iteration of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women ... but lucky us that she did, because her version enhances Alcott's voice, making it at once more clearly feminist, romantic and consequential. Saoirse Ronan is the perfect Jo, but it is Midsommar's (2019) Florence Pugh as Amy whose character arc indelibly defines this take. They're both so strong it hardly matters that Emma Watson as Meg and Eliza Scanlen as Beth are merely good. Featuring a heart-meltingly dashing Timothée Chalamet as Laurie, Meryl Streep as a perfectly curmudgeonly Aunt March and Tracy Letts as kind-hearted Mr. Dashwood, this Little Women, with its nonlinear storyelling, is a feel-good triumph of the female spirit.

D9vN2zsAll about my daddy (Image via Sony)

(5) Pain and Glory (Sony) — Pedro Almodóvar rarely disappoints, and certainly does not with Pain and Glory, a remarkably modern story told with nostalgic, even romanticized flashbacks that recall the kind of harder, yet Painandglory-640x308simpler time for which its subject longs. Antonio Banderas, who should be Oscar-nominated for this performance, is Salvador Mallo, a once-hot movie director whose greatest work, and whose health, are in the dust. When his signature film Flavor is screened, it reunites him with an actor who clashed with him on the project. Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) has been a medium-functioning heroin addict for decades, but it hasn't dulled his memory — he still holds a grudge. Still, he is also eager to reclaim his own past glory via a stage production based on some of Salvador's recent musings about his '80s affair with Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), and is more than a little surprised when Salvador begins to get high with him. As Salvador seemingly drifts further from the limelight, running from pain both physical and emotional, and away from living up to his potential, he recalls his childhood in Paterna. There he lived with his parents (Raúl Arévalo and Penélope Cruz) in a whitewashed cave dwelling, and — as a creative prodigy — he set out to teach a handsome laborer (César Vicente) how to read and write. That bond will come into play as Salvador must decide whether he is going to move forward or give up, resulting in a film that ranks among the director's best. As a bonus, every shot in this marriage of the musical Company (1970) and the Dutch film For a Lost Soldier (1992) is suitable for framing. 

Source“Just take a minute and think about all the people who loved us into being.” (GIF via GIPHY)

(4) A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (TriStar)The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) and Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018) director Marielle Heller knocked this one out of the neighborhood, and did it with material that many other filmmakers may have hesitated to make quite so conceptually adventurous. After all, the central story revolves around a magazine writer (Matthew Rhys) coming to grips with his toxic, absentee father and the demands of his own new fatherhood while attempting to write what is assigned as a puff piece on Fred Rogers aka Mr. Rogers for Esquire DF-10841_r-Large_1000x667p_thumbnail-800x534 in the '90s. Who wants an out-there approach to Mr. Rogers? Turns out I did, as this film had me tearing up continually, whether at Tom Hanks's eerily dead-on performance as the late childhood icon (Rogers died at 74 in 2003 of stomach cancer), at scenes Heller created of Rogers being serenaded by strangers or at Rogers explaining his imperfections while sneakily avoiding becoming too much of an open book. Most of all the film might make you cry at the knowledge that you're unlikely to ever be as kind as Rogers showed we all could be with effort. Rhys is beautifully in touch with his character, who is as bad at battling his peculiarly male rage as he is good at eviscerating people on the printed page, Susan Kelechi Watson is more than a one-note wife, and Chris Cooper — with no awards buzz I've detected — is delightfully dastardly as a dad who has made unforgivable mistakes, but still wants forgiveness. It's also a treat to see Tammy Blanchard as the reporter's earthy sister, Christine Lahti as his boss and Maddie Corman as the spitting image of Lady Aberlin aka actress Betty Aberlin. But this is no nostalgia-fest; it's a spirited confrontation of life's most uncomfortable developments, and it's got a fantastically surreal vibe.

1917-george-mackay-sliceWar is still hell. (Image via Universal)

(3) 1917 (Universal) — Some of the year's biggest movies and likeliest Oscar nominees are examples of American-classic genres — the gangster pic, the Little Women adaptation, a race-car flick and brand-reinforcing work by a couple of auteurs. Among them is 1917, a WWI epic directed by Sam Mendes from his script with Krysty Wilson-Cairns. Its big technical gamble is that it is edited to appear as if it were shot all in one take, Rope (1948)-style, but it would be a shame to boil it down to a gimmick, especially when the gimmick is handled in an artful way, and actually makes the film feel immediate over 100 years after the events it chronicles. British Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) is informed he must choose a buddy — lucky Lance Corporal William Schofield (George MacKay) — and go behind enemy lines and warn a regiment not to attack the Germans, as they would be walking into a deadly trap. To give him inspiration to get the job done, the soldier has been chosen because his brother (Richard Madden) is in the ill-fated regiment. Without a second thought, he departs, dragging his friend through one death-defying situation after another, including a plane crash so realistic it could trigger PTSD. An excellent anti-war war movie, 1917 is immersive thanks to its editing, but also thanks to the very human performance by MacKay, whose character is mad as hell that he was chosen, doesn't wanna do it, then spends what could be his final hours desperately trying to get the job done. If this were called 1942 instead, I would say it was a lock to win Best Picture. As it is, I would bet it is a lock for a much-deserved nomination.

Giphy-6I bet Sandler gets nominated. (GIF via GIPHY)

(1) Uncut Gems (A24) — The movie that gut-punched me the most this year ties for my favorite of 2019, Josh and Benny Safdie's Uncut Gems. Written by them with Ronald Bronstein, Uncut Gems is a crime thriller that breathlessly follows Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), 5df2cc19d36cd.image a sad sack jeweler of epic proportions, everywhere, from a colonoscopy to his grimy Diamond District den to his asshole daughter's school play to the apartment he keeps for his side piece/employee (Julia Fox), anywhere it needs to go in an effort to pin him down and reveal who he is. His problem is he has imported a rare black opal from Ethiopian Jews and needs to sell it for a million bucks to help cover, among other debts, the $100,000 he owes his murderous loan shark Arno (Eric Bogosian), who happens to be his own brother-in-law. ImageIt's a break-neck journey (and one on which his creditors are constantly considering breaking Howard's neck) that looks like atrial fibrillation feels, chock-full of details that made me laugh out loud, cringe and/or marvel at the vision of the filmmakers. Complicating things, Howard loans his opal out and pawns the collateral in order keep gambling, causing the stakes to shoot up by the second. Lakeith Stanfield is Howard's shady-as-hell go-between for selling his rocks to such marks as basketballer Kevin Garnett (hilariously playing an idiotically self-absorbed version of himself), Idina Menzel is Howard's fed-up wife, Judd Hirsh is his kindly father-in-law and the film also confidently tosses in cameos by The Weeknd, John Amos, Ca$h Out and others that never derail the proceedings. I had no idea how this was gonna end, and I'm pissed it even had to — I wanted to let it ride!


Giphy-5Best peach movie since Call Me by Your Name. (GIF via GIPHY)

(1) Parasite (NEON) — An instant classic of the cinema, Screen Shot 2019-12-31 at 6.15.09 PMSouth Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho's Parasite, from his script with Han Jin-won, is a gutsy thriller rife with pitch-black comedy that introduces us to the audacious fraud perpetrated by a resourceful family. Son Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) stumbles into work as a tutor for dense debutante Park Da-hye (Jeong Ji-so), whose dad is smarmy IT magnate Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun) and whose mother is fluttery, scatter-brained Park Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong). Though he has faked his way into the job, a crush helps seal the deal, and paves the way for his sister to come aboard as an even less qualified art tutor for the family's brat savant son, Park Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun). Things snowball when mom Kim Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin) heartlessly takes the place of the family's devoted cook and housekeeper (Lee Jung-eun), and dad Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho, in an Oscar-worthy performance) slides into place as their chauffeur. But when things appear to be as easy as stealing candy from a baby, the family that uses together loses together, with one incredible development after another threatening their arrangement. Look, this is already one of the best-reviewed films of all time, and is among the Top 10 best-reviewed of the past decade — if you haven't seen it, see it. The title makes it sound like an '80s creature feature, but it's much more like '40s Hitchcock, and it just may be the foreign film that does what Roma (2018) couldn't quite do — win top honors at the Oscars over the Americans.

Tumblr_e941964266a53bf3b0577dfa0dd0c0c2_5401f170_500No second date. (GIF via GIPHY)

Not the worst of the year, but disappointments you may see singled out as among the best on other lists:

Ford v Ferrari (20th Century Fox) — Director Ford-v-ferrari-ii-1-e1574704106983James Mangold is a long way from his days directing the intimate character studies Heavy (1995) and Cop Land (1997), having driven through the superhero blockbusters The Wolverine (2013) and Logan (2017) and skidded to a halt with the rote Ford v Ferrari, the story of Henry Ford II's decision to try to make his company synonymous with speed by besting that “greasy wop” Enzo Ferrari's company at Le Mans in 1966. Full of itself in every frame, no emotion is mustered; it's a by-the-book biopic about American exceptionalism ... and I kept wondering if Mangold suspected the Americans (with their hired-hand Brit) are the villains. The actors are all fine, but are we really going to waste a Best Actor slot on Christian Bale for this?

SourceWill Oscar be the man that got away? (GIF via GIPHY)

Judy (LD): Renée Zellweger turns in a thoroughly empathetic and convincing performance as show-biz legend Judy Garland during her final run of shows and nearing the end of her life, but director Rupert Goold and write Tom Edge have concocted an unapologetically phony framework in which Zellweger is showcased. The emotionally manipulative and farcically farfetched scene in which two gay fans take Judy home for dinner — which never happened — is a great example of when filmmakers go too far down the path of creative devices in their quest to bring the stories of historical figures to life. It also seems to suggest Judy was despondent, in the end, due to her daughter Lorna Luft being happier living with her dad. Ironically, Luft turned in the best book on the topic of her mom, which was adapted as the best film on that topic, 2001's TV movie Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows. Judy, by comparison, is forgettable, and yet has a great shot at winning Oscar gold thanks to Zellweger — who, as good as she is, can't hold a candle to Life with Judy Garland's Tammy Blanchard (who is, as I write above, great in this year's A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood) and Judy Davis.

The King (Netflix) — David Michôd's take on The-kingShakespeare's so-called Henriad (Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, Henry V) couldn't be further from the Bard, with its lack of wit, its disdain for language and its plodding handling of a historical narrative. A nifty beheading and one poetic battle sequence do not distract from the absence of any there, and Timothée Chalamet's got only just enough pretty to keep him from comparisons to Tony Curtis and his apocryphal, “Yondah lies da castle of my foddah.” Boring AF, content-wise and visually.

The Lighthouse (A24) — I am genuinely The-lighthouse-official-trailer-2-hd-a24-mp4-00-00-53-19-still002-1570010295perplexed by the heaps of critical praise for Robert Eggers's arty, attractive-looking, empty film-school experiment. Willem Dafoe hams it up, making it feel like Pirates of the Atlantic, and the movie's ponderous, self-conscious obsession with style over substance calls to mind the longest-ever episode of Night Gallery. The director also delivered 2015's excruciating The Witch, which basically re-condemned the women killed by the U.S. at the Salem Witch Trials and became one in a glacial procession of murderously slow-moving dalliances into the occult (like last year's Hereditary and Suspiria). This film is stagnant in every way.

Queen & Slim (Universal) — Pretentious, filled with 3992ef8c-adb0-44f3-aaa9-8d20e33ec6e0-VPC_TRAILER_ON_QUEEN_AND_SLIM_DESK_THUMB_V2preposterously broad situations and awkwardly philosophical dialogue, and, frankly, anchored by the flat performances of Daniel Kaluuya and especially Jodie Turner-Smith, Melina Matsoukas's debut film, about police harassing and shooting unarmed black people, feels like a fairy tale ... when it could have been raw and real. Oddly, the filmmaker and studio have rejected comparing the title characters to those in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), even though the comparison is made within the film. Queen & Slim is clearly intended as a sort of flip side of that real-life story. The difference, and the point? These are black people forced into a life on the run, whereas Bonnie and Clyde were cold-blooded criminals. Perversely, both became anti-heroes, suggesting the vast difference between being white vs. black (albeit fictional characters) while on the wrong side of the law. Long on running time, short on inspiration. I will say this: It is exquisitely filmed, if stylish to a fault.

And finally, not Oscar predictions but my choices ...

The Best Performances of 2019 — Each Category In Order


(1) Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory

(2) Adam Sandler, Uncut Gems

(3) Kelvin Harrison Jr., Luce

(4) Adam Driver, Marriage Story

(5) Joaquin Phoenix, Joker


(1) Alfre Woodard, Clemency

(2) Mary Kay Place, Diane

(3) Awkwafina, The Farewell

(4) Saoirse Ronan, Little Women

(5) Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story

Supporting Actor

(1) Song Kang-ho, Parasite

(2) Shia LaBeouf, Honey Boy

(3) Ray Romano, Paddleton

(4) Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

(5) Joe Pesci, The Irishman

Supporting Actress

(1) Florence Pugh, Little Women

(2) Julia Fox, Uncut Gems

(3) Taylor Russell, Waves

(4) Julie Hagerty, Marriage Story

(5) Bárbara Santos, Invisible Life

Non-Human (Alpha by Movie)

Honeyland — The bees

The Lighthouse — The seagull (you know which one)

Midsommar — The bear

Once Upon a Time ... in America — The dog

Waves — The shaking cat