Year-end reviews are a tricky proposition in that they really only represent your feelings in the particular moment in time that you publish them. Some movies age better than others, while the rankings themselves are often interchangeable based on your mood or other outside influences. With that said, you probably shouldn’t place too much stock in where the following films landed on my best-of list but rather that they earned a spot at all.
War may be hell, but director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins turn it into something strangely beautiful with this visually stunning World War I drama about a pair of British soldiers sent on a dangerous mission across enemy lines to deliver an urgent message that could save thousands of lives, including the older brother of one of the soldiers. Designed to look like one long, uninterrupted take, “1917” is an incredible technical achievement that uses its gimmick to pile on the tension and create a feeling of no escape — for the characters as well as the audience. But while the visuals will undoubtedly earn a bulk of the plaudits, and deservedly so, the movie is more than just a gimmick. It’s a thrilling and emotional journey into the hellscape of war that’s buoyed by a pair of strong, raw performances from George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman.
9. “THE IRISHMAN“
Martin Scorsese and gangster movies go together like peanut butter and jelly, so it’s really no surprise that his ambitious, long-in-development crime epic marks another win for the director. Based on Charles Brandt’s 2004 book “I Heard You Paint Houses,” “The Irishman” tells the story of Frank Sheeran, a real-life Mafia hitman who claimed to have played a role in the death of Jimmy Hoffa. Though the film’s groundbreaking de-aging technology is certainly impressive, the highlight of “The Irishman” is its main cast. Al Pacino delivers some of his best work in years (if not decades) as the notoriously stubborn Hoffa, while Joe Pesci (in his first screen role since 2010) reminds us why he’s such a great actor. Robert De Niro also turns in a solid performance as the title character, but it’s Pacino and Pesci who steal the show. It’s just a shame that the movie is so unnecessarily long because if not for the bloated runtime, “The Irishman” would surely be among Scorsese’s best films.
8. “MARRIAGE STORY“
It’s hard not to wonder how much of “Marriage Story” is based on writer/director Noah Baumbach’s own marriage to actress Jennifer Jason Leigh — there are some obvious similarities throughout — but setting aside the potentially autobiographical nature of the story, the movie serves as an intimately raw, honest and heartrending look at what it’s like to go through a divorce when love turns to bitterness. It’s infuriating to watch at times and yet surprisingly funny as well, thanks in large part to Baumbach’s well-crafted script and award-worthy performances by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver. Though you’re not really meant to choose sides, as both parties are equally culpable for varying reasons, you find yourself doing so anyway. And that’s ultimately a fool’s errand because if “Marriage Story” has one lesson, it’s that there are no winners in divorce.
7. “UNCUT GEMS“
Many people have compared Benny and Josh Safdie’s latest film to a two-hour-plus panic attack, and they’re not wrong — “Uncut Gems” is one of the most stressful, anxiety-inducing movies you’ll see all year. The Safdie brothers certainly have a knack for propulsive, frenetically paced movies about unsavory characters (look no further than 2017’s “Good Times”), but they take things to the next level with this gritty crime drama about a loudmouthed, sleazeball jewelry dealer in self-destructive freefall. Adam Sandler delivers a career-best performance in the lead role — the kind of person you hate and empathize with in equal measure — while newcomer Julia Fox provides good support as his mistress. The tension rarely lets up over the course of the film’s 135-minute runtime, and though it gets a bit repetitive in the later stages, the ending is so masterfully executed that you’ll forgive the overindulgence.
Jay Roach’s fictionalized account of the women who brought down Fox News executive Roger Ailes is a timely look at sexual harassment in the workplace as told through the lens of one of the most famous scandals to come out of the #MeToo movement. All three leading women (Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie) are outstanding in their respective roles, but it’s Theron who delivers the most noteworthy performance, melting into her role as Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly thanks to a spot-on impersonation and some Oscar-worthy makeup effects. It’s like a magic trick in motion, adding a level of authenticity that the material demands. “Bombshell” isn’t without its faults, but between the phenomenal cast (including a very good John Lithgow as Ailes) and Charles Randolph’s smart script, this ripped-from-the-headlines political satire has plenty of punch.
5. “FORD V FERRARI“
With the exception of his Wolverine movies, “Walk the Line” might just be James Mangold’s most successful film, so it’s nice to see the director dive back into the world of biopics, flawed as they may be. “Ford v Ferrari” doesn’t do much to stray from the typical biopic formula, but it’s a compelling tale of ingenuity, precision and passion that boasts a pair of fantastic performances by Matt Damon and (especially) Christian Bale. As good as both actors are in their roles, however, the film is at its best when it’s on the track. Though there are only a few racing sequences in the movie, each one is a visceral, immersive experience that puts you right in the driver’s seat, capturing the intensity and exhilaration of zooming around at 200 MPH. It’s truly spectacular stuff, and “Ford v Ferrari” becomes so alive in these moments that your heart will still be racing when it’s over.
4. “KNIVES OUT“
Writer/director Rian Johnson follows up his trip to a galaxy far, far away with this wildly enjoyable murder mystery featuring what is arguably the best ensemble cast of the year. Though not every actor is given equal screen time, they all thrive in their respective roles, particularly Ana de Armas, Chris Evans and Daniel Craig as a sort of Southern-fried Hercule Poirot. The script is full of witty dialogue and fun interactions between the characters, while the plot itself is so well constructed that you don’t fully realize its complexity until Johnson has revealed his entire hand. The true genius of “Knives Out,” however, is the way that it operates both as a loving homage to the classic whodunnit and a bold subversion of the very tropes that define the genre. Of course, that’s been Johnson’s M.O. for most of his career, and it’s why he remains one of the more exciting filmmakers working today.
3. “THE FAREWELL“
Lulu Wang’s sophomore feature is clearly a very personal project for the Chinese-born writer/director, and that emotion bleeds onto the screen in this sweet, profound and occasionally funny tale about family, tradition and the different ways we grieve. Based on Wang’s own experiences, “The Farewell” doesn’t seem all that special at first, but it quietly sneaks up on you with its richly detailed characters and culturally specific yet relatable story. That speaks not only to the writing but the acting as well, particularly a soulful Awkwafina and newcomer Shuzhen Zhao as the elderly matriarch. Wang doesn’t delve too deep into the family’s past, but you can sense the history etched on the characters’ faces and within their nuanced performances, revealing new layers to each family member even in their silence. It’s a remarkably disciplined piece of storytelling, and one that will surely put Wang on the map as a filmmaker to watch.
Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film isn’t as instantly likeable as his other movies, but the more time that you spend with the film, the more you begin to appreciate the finer details of this sprawling tale. “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” is less concerned with plot than creating a mood — it’s a hangout movie that plays like one giant love letter to the art of filmmaking and Tarantino’s own memories of growing up in 1960s Los Angeles. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt deliver great work as always, though the latter arguably has the better of the two roles, while Margot Robbie makes the most of her limited screen time (often with something as simple as a smile) as real-life actress Sharon Tate. Though the dialogue isn’t as sparkly as we’ve come to expect from Tarantino, “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” is a more mature and emotional movie that’s stuffed with one great sequence after the next.
Bong Joon-ho’s genre-defying film is every bit as excellent as its reputation suggests, masterfully balancing several different tones to tell its dark and socially conscious tale of class warfare. The movie is constantly evolving. Just when you think it’s headed in one direction, with the poor but wily Kim family spinning their web of deceit and slowly integrating themselves into the household of the wealthy but naïve Park family, “Parasite” takes a sharp left turn and then another and another right up to its gut-punch ending. It’s a genuinely funny, thrilling and poignant film that keeps you on the edge of your seat, and it’s all thanks to some razor-sharp writing, brilliant direction and great work from its cast, particularly Korean film veteran Song Kang-ho, who delivers one of the year’s best performances as the Kim family patriarch. “Parasite” is a wholly unique experience that only gets better with repeat viewings, and it stands head and shoulders above any other film released this year.
Check out Rob Dean’s 2019 Year-End Movie Review as well for Rob’s picks.