In the topsy-turvy world of 2019, it only makes sense that cinema was itself similarly affected by the unexpected.
Adam Sandler and Jennifer Lopez both find themselves knee-deep in Oscar conversations. After opening at least one movie a year in the U.S. for 35 straight years, a scandal-tainted Woody Allen still hasn’t found stateside distribution for his most recent film (although A Rainy Day in New York has been playing the rest of the world since last July). Pokémon Detective Pikachu becomes the first video-game adaptation to earn more positive than negative reviews, breaking a curse that has seemingly lasted for centuries. And for only the second time in the primary saga’s history, a Star Wars movie won’t be the year’s top moneymaker (instead, for the second year in a row, that honor goes to a superhero flick).
But some things remain constant — for instance, the fact that the end of the year brings a slew of articles citing the best and worst achievements in film. In my case, that translates to wading through the 160 movies I saw that were released in 2019 and separating the wheat and the chaff from the rest of the cinematic crop.
Here, then, are my picks for the 10 best movies of 2019, followed by 10 worthy runners-up, other assorted superlatives, and one final look at the worst films I endured over the past 12 months.
THE 10 BEST
1. MARRIAGE STORY (Noah Baumbach). The best film of 2019. With Marriage Story — the finest movie of its type since Ingmar Bergman’s 1974 Scenes from a Marriage — a few pinnacles of perfection have been achieved. Writer-director Noah Baumbach has topped himself with a motion picture that’s more honest, empathic and absorbing than any made in 2019 by his more heavily hyped comrades; he deserves to move closer to the forefront of American filmmakers. And as the couple who inch nearer and nearer to the precipice of divorce, Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver both deliver career-best performances. A magnificent movie, Marriage Story is alternately humorous, hopeful and heartbreaking, and it’s impossible to look away even when it’s at its harshest.
2. 1917 (Sam Mendes). During World War I, two British soldiers (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) are tasked with delivering a message to a battalion stationed behind enemy lines. As an exercise in cinematic technique, it’s a wonder, with Roger Deakins’ camerawork matched to make the entire film seem like one continuous take. But 1917 is more than just a filmic stunt, thanks to a riveting screenplay (by director Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns) that elevates the standard “men on a mission” storyline into something approaching grace.
3. PARASITE (Bong Joon Ho). Foreign-language films are too often marginalized by American audiences and even reviewers, so it says something that this winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes has emerged as an across-the-board breakout hit. And no wonder, as the writer-director of Snowpiercer and The Host now turns his attention to the members of a struggling family and the manner in which they all acquire jobs working for a wealthy couple. To reveal more would be an indefensible crime, but suffice it to say that the movie works some social commentary into its extremely twisty tale.
4. YESTERDAY (Danny Boyle). Too many critics simultaneously missed the boat and dropped the ball when it came to what turned out to be one of the year’s most original productions. An absolutely inspiring and disarming picture that makes the most of its unique angle, this casts Himesh Patel as a musician who takes a nasty fall and reawakens in a world in which The Beatles never existed. The script by Richard Curtis touches on relevant themes connected to the world of entertainment, and the second half is packed with a number of bittersweet moments that connect.
5. AD ASTRA (James Gray). A cautious and contemplative movie that dropkicks Conrad, Kubrick and Tarkovsky into the conversation, Ad Astra is a dazzling slice of science fiction, a film that moves to its own unpredictable rhythms while showcasing the best “outer space” visual effects yet seen on screen. Some have groused that the father-son thread feels slight in the midst of the visionary sights and reflective musings, yet thanks to writer-director James Gray’s measured approach and Brad Pitt’s intuitive and heartfelt performance, it proves to be a worthy hook.
6. THE LIGHTHOUSE (Robert Eggers). If 2016’s The Witch showed that writer-director Robert Eggers was a filmmaker worth watching, then this second effort demonstrates that all eyes should remain transfixed on his career. The Lighthouse defies easy description, as it’s a black-and-white mood piece about two men (Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe) and their testy relationship while stationed at a lighthouse off the coast of 19th century New England. Elliptical yet engrossing, it suggests early David Lynch by way of Greek mythology, horror literature, and maybe even a splash of film noir.
7. BOOKSMART (Olivia Wilde). One of the very best films of 2018 was Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade (go here for the complete Best & Worst of 2018), which offered an unfiltered look at the painful struggles of a middle-school girl. Now comes Booksmart, which adds a semester’s worth of lively and occasionally raunchy humor to sweeten the package. Described as a female Superbad, it’s actually a brainier, brawnier and altogether better motion picture, with Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever peerless as two straight-A smarties who finally decide to fight for their right to party.
8. THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE (Riley Stearns). While Joker is a celebration rather than a condemnation of toxic masculinity (which explains why incels love it so), this startling movie is just the opposite. If Joker is shallow and self-satisfied, this one is sharp and searing, with Jesse Eisenberg cast as a meek accountant who finds himself manipulated by a charismatic karate instructor (Alessandro Nivola). Writer-director Riley Stearns has concocted a pitch-black piece in which the humor only serves as a dry rub over the disturbing developments and pointed jabs at misogynistic mores.
9. PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (Céline Sciamma). The year’s most affecting love story is a French import that’s about the head as much as the heart. An 18th century painter (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to capture a bride-to-be (Adèle Haenel) on canvas; alas, the subject doesn’t want to be married or painted. But a friendship soon develops between the women, one that eventually transforms into a forbidden love affair. Feminist filmmaker Céline Sciamma has fashioned a tender work that itself takes on the glow of a painting whose subjects are full of mystery and introspection.
10. KNIVES OUT (Rian Johnson). A successful crime novelist (Christopher Plummer) is found dead the morning after the entire family has gathered to celebrate his 85th birthday. So whodunnit? The culprit would be writer-director Rian Johnson, guilty of orchestrating one of the most flat-out entertaining movies of the year. His accomplice in crime? That would be Daniel Craig, terrific as ace detective Benoit Blanc. Hollywood already relies on too many sequels, but can we please be treated to another scintillating murder-mystery featuring Craig’s erudite investigator?
The Next 10 (Honorable Mentions, In Preferential Order): Little Women; Apollo 11; Motherless Brooklyn; Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound; The Report; I Lost My Body; Avengers: Endgame; The Farewell; Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood; Fighting with My Family
Best Actor: Adam Driver, Marriage Story; Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood and Ad Astra; Taron Egerton, Rocketman; Robert Pattinson, The Lighthouse; Eddie Murphy, Dolemite Is My Name
Best Actress: Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story; Lupita Nyong’o, Us; Florence Pugh, Midsommar and Fighting with My Family; Awkwafina, The Farewell; Cynthia Erivo, Harriet
Best Supporting Actor: Joe Pesci, The Irishman; Willem Dafoe, The Lighthouse; Tracy Letts, Ford v Ferrari; Ray Liotta, Marriage Story; Alessandro Nivola, The Art of Self-Defense
Best Supporting Actress: Laura Dern, Marriage Story; Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Dolemite Is My Name; Margot Robbie, Bombshell; Scarlett Johansson, Avengers: Endgame and Jojo Rabbit; Florence Pugh, Little Women
Sleeper Picks (Catch ‘Em at Home): Blinded by the Light; The Good Liar; Hotel Mumbai; The Kid Who Would Be King; Late Night
Disappointments: Alita: Battle Angel; It: Chapter Two; Joker; Richard Jewell; Terminator: Dark Fate
Overrated: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood; Doctor Sleep; Isn’t It Romantic; Joker; Judy; The Souvenir
Underrated: The Best of Enemies; Black and Blue; The Kid; Last Christmas; Ma; Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
THE 10 WORST
1. CATS A movie that will live in infamy, this abominable eyesore has already led to an onslaught of hilarious memes as well as speculation that it will become the next Rocky Horror Picture Show in terms of eager audience participation and interaction. Yet what’s missing from the conversation is the fact that, for all its visual grotesqueness, this bloated boondoggle is often excruciatingly boring. It will take all nine lives to sit through this more than once.
2. SERENITY A movie whose originality is thoroughly obliterated by its idiocy, this neo-noir finds Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway playing second banana to absurd plot twists. These narrative pirouettes effectively neutralize any emotions we might be feeling toward any of the characters, and the final half-hour is as daft as anything found in an Ed Wood turkey. It’s one thing to think outside the box; it’s another to deliberate beneath the barrel.
3. COUNTDOWN A demon with too much time on his hands creates an app that tells the user the exact moment he or she will die. I’m trying to wrap my mind around how a demon went about creating this app — did he sit down in a library’s computer center and patiently enter hours of coding? — but never mind. This ludicrous horror yarn is feeble in almost every regard, with genuine suspense traded out for a ceaseless stream of jump-scares that all fall flat.
4. THE INTRUDER A married couple (Michael Ealy and Meagan Good) buy a house out in the country, only to then be terrorized by its previous owner (Dennis Quaid). If the protagonists in this terrible thriller were any more dense, they would exist only as a thick fog. As the neighborly nut, Quaid starts off fine before exploding in full psycho mode, complete with Jack-Nicholson-as-Jack-Torrance quips.
5. CLIMAX Professional provocateur Gaspar Noé returns with another hyperactive assault on our senses, but in this instance, it feels as if the emperor no longer has any clothes. Clearly, Noé means for this largely improvisational piece — a banal terror tale in which LSD turns the members of a French dance troupe into raving lunatics — to disturb viewers, but it’s ultimately as shocking as a fifth grader making armpit noises.
6. THE DEAD DON’T DIE It’s downright depressing watching Jim Jarmusch’s latest, which feels like some sort of cinematic end-of-the-world apocalypse. After all, if the auteur behind such gems as Stranger Than Paradise and Only Lovers Left Alive has resorted to making movies this bad, then we’re all doomed. On paper, a zombie flick with Bill Murray sounds like it can’t miss … and it didn’t, when it was called Zombieland. This one, though, is strictly DOA.
7. DUMBO While the animated 1941 classic opted to anthropomorphize its animal stars, Tim Burton’s numbing homogenization decides to silence them by either shunting them to the background, dismissing them with a fleeting cameo or deleting them altogether. The focus thus shifts to the dull human characters, because Lord knows that’s what people really want to see when they catch a movie ostensibly about a flying elephant.
8. DARK PHOENIX And so it ends, not with a bang and not even with a whimper. Instead, the once-proud X-Men franchise concludes in muted repose, rendered comatose by this shockingly bland and startlingly bad entry. The youthful leads basically turn this into Muppet Babies X-Men, while series vet Jennifer Lawrence couldn’t possibly look more bored. The franchise may yet rise again from the ashes, but for now, it’s still being administered its last rites.
9. RAMBO: LAST BLOOD An intelligent film that employs Mexicans as the heinous villains? Hey, fair game. (See the excellent Sicario.) But an imbecilic film that employs Mexicans as the heinous villains at a time when this nation’s ersatz leader is gleefully demonizing that country and having its kids thrown into cages (among countless other offenses)? There’s little wit or imagination to be found anywhere in this jingoistic junk made by and for chickenhawks.
10. CHILD’S PLAY The toon flicks Wonder Park and UglyDolls could easily have slid into this final spot, but I opted to focus on child’s play of a different sort. In this ill-advised remake of the nifty 1988 original, Chucky is no longer evil because he harbors the soul of a mass murderer; instead, he’s wicked because a pouty factory worker disabled his AI safety features. Scary! Mark Hamill provides Chucky’s voice, but the Force clearly abandoned him on this film.