To me, reading and writing these year-end Top 10 lists is like opening presents on Christmas morning. It’s a tradition I cherish. This year, I decided to switch it up a bit with a Scene by Scene edition, focusing on the magical moments from my favorite 2019 movies. There may be some spoilers in here, so read at your own risk. Enjoy!
10. Mister America Holds a Town Hall Meeting
As Tim Heidecker campaigns to unseat the San Bernadino District Attorney, Mister America feels like a commentary on the antiquated ideology of the current administration. But when Heidecker’s On Cinema at the Cinema co-host Gregg Turkington shows up at a town hall meeting to derail the campaign, the film’s true identity emerges. As longtime friend and colleague Evan Dossey eloquently observed in his review: “Mister America isn’t so much a parody of our present political predicament as it is a dark, funny and surprisingly thoughtful character study about two useless men trapped in an endless, closed orbit around one another.” This scene is hilarious but also legitimately tense. You can feel the weight of Heidecker and Turkington’s troubled relationship. They’ve spent years assembling an arsenal of ammunition against each other, and they go out with all guns blazing in this scene. When Heidecker pokes fun at Turkington about his preference for VHS tapes over DVDs, it genuinely stings. This is comedy of discomfort at its best. As Turkington would say, Mister America is a popcorn classic.
9. Tacos and Beer Add to Good Feels on Wheels
Good Feels on Wheels recalls what Quentin Tarantino said about Jackie Brown in an interview with The New Yorker: “Every two or three years, put in Jackie Brown again, and you’re having a glass of white wine with Jackie, drinking screwdrivers with Ordell and taking bong hits with Melanie and Louis.” Good Feels is a similarly comforting kind of hangout movie. In this scene, writer-director Ronald Short’s immersive style makes you feel like you’re enjoying tacos and beer with your friends. Maybe I relate to it because it’s an intimate look at fellow millennials in wanderlust, but I find myself wanting to visit these characters again and again.
8. Family Infestation in Parasite
As the parasitic Kim clan takes over their host family’s luxurious house, they discover the Parks are coming home much sooner than expected. They scramble to clean up their mess and go back to looking like servants rather than squatters. At first, this scene feels like a sitcom sequence, but it leads to a deeply twisted turn of events that explores the extremes to which people go to experience the good life.
7. Triumphing Over Trumpers in Knives Out
Like Parasite, Knives Out is a tale of a family’s infectious greed, but it ends on a much more victorious note. The last shot of the film is perfect. The heroine Marta (Ana de Armas) stands on a balcony, looming over the Thrombey family and sipping from a mug that reads, “My House, My Rules, My Coffee.” Amid the sociopolitical madness of 2019, it’s incredibly gratifying to see a female immigrant triumph over a clan of conservative narcissists.
6. Hunting Howard Ratner in Uncut Gems
Jeweler Howard Ratner (a never-better Adam Sandler) takes a break from betting money away to see his daughter’s high-school play. But before the curtains open, he spots two loan sharks lurking in the shadows. We soon discover these thugs are working for Howard’s brother-in-law (Eric Bogosian), who is at once menacing and empathetic. At one point, he bellows, “You’re going around town with my money placing bets. I heard you resurfaced your swimming pool. You know how that makes me feel?” It was during this sequence that I realized the film wouldn’t let up, and I said aloud, “This is fucking awesome.”
5. A Dolphin Tour with The Beach Bum
The Beach Bum is a rare breed — a film that segues gracefully from genuine tragedy into absurd comedy. With this gaspingly hilarious and horrifying dolphin-tour-gone-wrong scene, writer-director Harmony Korine reminds us that we have no idea where the titular hero Moondog (Matthew McConaughey) will wind up next. And that’s the joy of the film. It fills you with a moment-to-moment sense of discovery and leaves you wanting to live as carefree as Moondog. You gotta just keep on livin’, man. L-i-v-i-n.
4. Meeting the Lawyers in Marriage Story
Of course there’s the knock-down drag-out fight scene that launched a million memes. But this scene is more representative of the film’s overall tone, which seamlessly shifts between tenderness, tough love and vicious tension. Shortly after chewing Charlie (Adam Driver) a new one, divorce attorney Nora (Laura Dern) casually praises his plays and talks about why he’d love Los Angeles. And in the midst of this humiliating meeting, Charlie’s wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), slips back into a loving role and orders him lunch. This is just one of the film’s many devastating yet beautiful scenes.
3. In the Makeup Room with Joker
Sue me — I love this movie, and I saw it three times in theaters. It’s not particularly profound, but its intoxicating air of dread and discomforting intimacy kept me coming back for more. This scene is a prime example of how Joaquin Phoenix’s performance elevates the film. As he’s waiting backstage at Live with Murray Franklin and watching chaos unfold on the news, he gently — maybe nervously — giggles as fearful tears well up in his eyes. In this moment, you can see his humanity peering through the ghostly makeup. He knows how far he has gone, and deep down his behavior frightens him, but he can’t stop. Haunting.
2. Mel Opens Up with the Sword of Trust
Is Sword of Trust a truly great 5-star movie? Honestly it’s not, but it’s special to me because of my longtime fondness for its star, Marc Maron. His monologue near the end of the film is one of the year’s most memorable pieces of acting, largely because of the personal history he brings to it. Knowing Maron’s painful past makes his character Mel’s story of addiction and co-dependency all the more poignant. It’s the kind of confessional moment that Maron gently pries out of himself and guests all the time on his podcast, WTF with Marc Maron. After years of listening to his show, watching his comedy work and witnessing his growth as a serious actor, I beamed with pride as he gracefully carried the emotional weight of this scene. Seeing Mel shed his armor of cynicism and reveal his hopeful heart is a timely inspiration.
1. The Fairy-Tale Ending of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood
Some have called it excessively brutal and sadistic, but I think the final setpiece of this film might just be Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece. The first time I saw it, I was overwhelmed with joy as stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) demonstrated a zen-like calm in the face of evil. Watching him and his best buddy / actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) use their showbiz savvy to defeat it in such a cinematic way is a wonder to behold. Of course their actions are over the top; they’re more accustomed to big-screen heroics. The ending emerges as an act of movie magic and a bittersweet piece of revisionist history that delivers the sensation of justice we so desperately crave right now. Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) shines as a much-needed beacon of innocence and hope.