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 myself which films left me feeling glad for having taken the journey. Which journeys were to worthwhile places? Which 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.
- “Little Women.” 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 breaths 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.
- “Just Mercy.” It’s a legal procedural that doesn’t try to wow with its cinematic style. Jamie Fox may get Supporting Actor attention but Rob Morgan is at the heart of the film.
- “Waves.” 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.
- “1917.” 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 on and, while 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.
- “Parasite.” I’m still wondering how a film can be so playful and disturbing and thoughtful and rule-breaking and coherent and terrifying and funny.
- “Uncut Gems.” 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 King.” 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.
- “Wild Rose.” The tough part about fictional movies about 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.
- “Late Night.” The feel of a romcom but without a romance to tie it down. Multi-layered characters help. So do laughs.
- “The Irishman.” I’m glad “Goodfellas” wasn’t 3 1/2 hours long and I’m glad “The Irishman” was. 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,” “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.
Anything you agree with? Disagree with?