Among chief critic Todd McCarthy's faves are new masterworks from Tarantino and Scorsese, Greta Gerwig’s vital spin on a beloved classic and two wildly different French films, while top picks from other THR critics include 'Marriage Story,' 'Pain and Glory' and 'The Last Black Man in San Francisco.'
Here we are, now fully two decades into the second century of cinema, and while notions of what actually constitutes a film — as opposed to television, images on your phone or something else — are more in flux than ever, 2019 has been a lively and varied enough year at the movies. Arresting films came in from different corners of the globe, in different genres, from different sources and courtesy of directors both established and up and coming.
But while there were any number of notable releases this year, serious disagreements persist as to what they were: Nowhere on my top 10 list or 10 honorable mentions, for example, will you see a certain South Korean Cannes winner (and major Oscar contender), a serio-comic Sundance tearjerker about a dying grandma or any horror films at all, including the much-debated one about a New York homicidal lunatic with a big red mouth or the latest from the director of Get Out.
What you will find are a love story, three very different buddy films, a Mafia epic, a war movie, an unusual documentary, a big literary adaptation, a complex character study and a tale of urban unrest set in a part of Paris few tourists visit. These were the best films of the year.
Although it does have one conspicuous flaw — Sharon Tate should have been made into a real person, not just a one-dimensional starlet — Quentin Tarantino’s love letter to Hollywood is still as rich, flavorful and deep-dish an immersion in revisionist Tinseltown lore as anyone could ever want or imagine. It’s a film unlike any other, one that provides both repeated and increased pleasure on multiple viewings, and that’s even before unwrapping the extra-long version that’s just been released. Whereas most previous big-screen works about Hollywood have taken a jaundiced view of the movie capital, Tarantino goes the opposite way to glorious effect.
After quietly making lots of shorts and a handful of little-seen features over the past decade, Josh and Benny Safdie conclusively showed that they’re the real deal. And so, once and for all, did Adam Sandler, who is spectacular as a successful New York jewelry district merchant for whom risk is all. The man lives for the next transaction, the next gamble, getting deeper in as he goes, but he’s always come out ahead and, of course, thinks he always will. It’s a jaw-dropping portrait of both self-confidence and self-loathing, and of life beyond the deep end, taken to what you think is the limit — until it then goes even further.
It’s been made several times (including once starring a 23-year-old pregnant Joan Bennett as the 12-year-old Amy and another time with a 31-year-old June Allyson, also pregnant, portraying 15-year-old Jo). But the new version from Greta Gerwig is the best. All the dust and stuffing has been shaken out of this old war horse, replaced with a surge of supremely focused energy and nothing but fine judgment about how to square this enduringly popular tale of female perseverance during Civil War-era Massachusetts with modern sensibilities. Gerwig draws you close to these characters at once, and never lets go.
Martin Scorsese’s string of films about macho, Italian-American mid-century life and East Coast gangsterism that started with Mean Streets reaches an epic conclusion centered on real, as opposed to strictly fictional, characters. The director is too tightly wound and energetic to properly make an autumnal movie, but it is mournful and sad, as characters who can’t escape their roots and lifelong fealties and habits play out their deadly strings to the bitter end. Masterful in every way.
Set within the upper class in coastal 18th century France and almost exclusively preoccupied with women’s societal roles, art and sexual attraction between artist and model, Celine Sciamma’s impeccably observed drama is defined by its precision — of gesture, emotion and knowledge of how the world works in this specific milieu. At its heart is a forbidden love; amorous and erotic sentiment indeed are the story’s driving forces. But one keenly feels the rigid social order to which the women must submit, and all the film’s elements work in perfect sync to investigate a romance constrained by very tight boundaries.
This highlight of last January’s Sundance stands as the American indie breakthrough of the year. It’s a unique, highly poetic work following a young man as he tries to find his way back into his magnificent childhood home against the backdrop of city-wide gentrification and exorbitant real estate. The film miraculously walks a tonal tightrope without slipping into symbolic excess or pretentiousness, which is a tribute to the writers’ rigor and sureness of vision. Director Joe Talbot and lead actor and story co-writer Jimmie Fails have been friends since childhood, and the symbiosis is intense and complete.
This supremely well-engineered auto racing yarn arguably features the best screen story of the year for a mainstream American film, a titanic battle not only between cars on the track but the cultures that made them. Most racetrack tales take off when they hit the asphalt and sag during the downtime between races, but that’s hardly the case here, as the men behind the machines, from very different worlds, make for lively combustion as well. Director James Mangold has long since established himself as an unpredictable all-rounder, but his assurance continues to grow in a way that recalls the reliable old pros of the classical Hollywood era, like Raoul Walsh and Michael Curtiz.
The horror of war on the front lines, especially in the protracted, dug-in circumstances such as prevailed during World War I, has been portrayed many times onscreen. But never has its inescapability been quite so completely rendered as in Sam Mendes’ real-time account of the attempt by two young British soldiers to make their way through the maze of battle to deliver a vital message. What Mendes and virtuoso cinematographer Roger Deakins have done is amazing to watch, as the camera soars, burrows, zips and diverts through landscapes and living hell, immersively putting the viewer through the same perilous paces experienced by the men.
This drama also puts the viewer on the front lines, equally vitally and in perhaps an even more disturbing way, as the setting is the Paris that tourists never see: the vast projects largely occupied by African and Arab immigrants and their first-generation French children on the outskirts of the city. The young director, Ladj Ly, grew up there and started documenting the volatile conditions on his own with a small camera. Centered on a three-person police squad that finds itself outnumbered and overwhelmed, this electric drama could not feel more urgent or real, as locals and cops alike desperately try to cope with a fundamentally hopeless situation.
Rather like a more political and journalistically minded Sacha Baron Cohen, the globe-trotting Danish provocateur Mads Brugger has nerves of steel. Having previously embarrassed North Korean officials in The Red Chapel and exposed blatant corruption in the Central African Republic in The Ambassador, here he digs deep into mercenary circles in Zambia in a fascinating attempt to show that the 1961 plane crash that killed U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammerskjold was not an accident but an assassination. The filmmaker can’t quite prove it, but the journey is darkly funny, with the indefatigably impudent and brazen Brugger alternately exultant and depressed over his progress and lack of same.
Honorable mentions: Apollo 11, Ash Is Purest White, Dolemite Is My Name, Honey Boy, Marriage Story, The Mustang, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, Richard Jewell, Transit, The Two Popes.
1. Marriage Story
2. Give Me Liberty
3. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
4. Sorry Angel
9. End of the Century
Honorable mentions: Her Smell, Honeyland, Invisible Life, The Irishman, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Little Women, Pain and Glory, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sauvage/Wild, The Souvenir
1. The Last Black Man in San Francisco
2. The Irishman
3. Apollo 11
5. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
6. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
8. I Lost My Body
9. An Elephant Sitting Still
10. The Souvenir
Honorable mentions: 63 Up, 1917, Amazing Grace, Cunningham, Dolemite Is My Name, Give Me Liberty, Honeyland, Invisible Life, Marriage Story, Sea of Shadows
1. Pain and Glory
3. Marriage Story
4. The Souvenir
5. Invisible Life
6. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
7. Give Me Liberty
8. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
9. The Irishman
Honorable mentions: Atlantics, Clemency, The Farewell, Honeyland, Joker, Knives Out, The Lighthouse, Little Women, One Child Nation, Waves