Yes, I could have called this the “Best Movies of 2019.”
But as I thought about the dozens of films I experienced this year, “best” seemed to imply a definitive judgment. That’s perfectly fine. I make such declarative judgments all the time.
I think, though, that “satisfying” is a more interesting classification.
This year, I asked myself which films left me feeling glad for having taken the journey. Which journeys were to worthwhile places … and that seemed to last just as long as they should have?
And in which cases did I trust my guides.
Let’s empty the notebook, starting at the top.
Pure magic from beginning to end. Gorgeously shot, ideally cast and so, so smartly written and directed. (Note: I not only didn’t read the book, I’ve seen no other film or theater adaptation. And contrary to what some folks have posted, the time leaps were never confusing to me.) Every character breathes humanity and the brilliantly crafted ending manages to honor the source material and the author while also giving a subtle contemporary perspective. There will be some men who avoid seeing the film because of the title. Those men are fools.
Dolemite is My Name
Yes, there have been other films about the success of the dubiously talented. But this bit of cinematic joy avoids the smell of superiority that plagued The Disaster Artist and, to a lesser extent, made Ed Wood a bit uncomfortable to me. Eddie Murphy probably won’t get enough credit for his nuanced work here. The supporting cast is a blast and the film’s great big heart feels earned. Bonus: Rather than yet another behind-the-scenes-in-Hollywood flick, this one takes us into the interesting world of race records and clubs in a way that no other high-profile film has.
It’s a legal procedural that doesn’t try to wow with its cinematic style. Jamie Foxx may get Supporting Actor attention from the Oscars, but Rob Morgan is at the heart of the film.
I’m glad I went into this one knowing nothing about it. You should, too. I appreciate a film willing to switch gears midway through — if the shift brings a different resonance. This one does. And it’s another film with a top-notch ensemble cast.
I’m so glad I saw this war flick on the big screen. By now, it seems, everyone knows that it creates the illusion of being shot in one continuous take. I didn’t know that going in and, although I was impressed with that decision, I never felt like it was a gimmick. It served the piece, helping make geography and distance as much a part of the drama as its outstanding lead actors. The best WWI film since Kubrick’s Paths of Glory.
A Hidden Life
I usually reject the “it’s too long” argument from critics. When you see as many films or plays as arts writers do, there’s a tendency to want to speed things along. In the case of Terrence Malick’s meditative and highly original look at a German conscientious objector, I do wish it was shorter only because it would likely reach a wider audience. Unlike such films as Schindler’s List, where a moral stand has a positive impact, A Hidden Life asks what happens if such a decision does not — or if it makes matters worse.
I’m still wondering how a film can be so playful and disturbing and thoughtful and rule-breaking and coherent and terrifying and funny.
Being hailed as a breakout for Adam Sandler, this nail-biter felt to me like a contemporary Jim Thompson / David Goodis / Charles Williams bad-decision-after-bad-decision thriller.
The further back in history, the less historical inaccuracies bother me. They didn’t here. What the film offered instead is a top-notch royal family theater peopled with rich characters. And it only took me a few minutes to get Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V out of my head.
The tough part about fictional movies with performing artists is making their alleged great moments believable. Wild Rose nails it, with songs worthy of life beyond the film. A major breakout performance by Jessie Buckley anchors it. And if “Glasgow” doesn’t get a Best Song nomination, something is seriously wrong with the Oscars.
The feel of a romcom but without a romance to tie it down. Multi-layered characters help. So do laughs.
I’m glad Goodfellas wasn’t 3 1/2 hours long and I’m glad The Irishman is. And am I the only person not distracted by the de-aging effects?
Also worth seeing: Marriage Story, The Farewell, Booksmart, The Two Popes, Luce, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Avengers: Endgame, Hustlers, Shazam, Jojo Rabbit, Ford v Ferrari, I Lost My Body, Honey Boy, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, The Peanut Butter Falcon, and Good Feels on Wheels.
Plus, while I haven’t watched as many documentaries as I would have liked, I heartily endorse For Sama, One Child Nation, and Apollo 11.
It was also a year when the final acts proved major letdowns after very promising set-ups. Among them: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, Ad Astra, Us, and Midsommar.
If I catch a few more before the end of the year, I’ll add them to the appropriate spot above.