Yes, there are exactly TWO Lisa Kudrow movies on my list here. Woman’s got Friends money but she still takes the time to bless us in five-minute increments a few times a year. Thank you for all you do, sweet Lisa, and Happy New Year to the rest of you spuds. Here we go:
10. Long Shot
Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen are no Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, but that’s 1) the entire premise of this movie and 2) why this rom-com actually works. The whole genre was suffering from its own conventions for the last decade or so, but Long Shot proves rom-coms are alive and well and entertaining if filmmakers are willing to take enough risks — and it doesn’t get much riskier than Seth Rogan as your romantic lead or dramatic actress/action movie badass Charlize Theron as a comedienne.
I could explain in vague, abstract terms what I enjoyed about Hustlers, but I think it would be easier for us all to go to YouTube and just type in “Jennifer Lopez Criminal pole dance.” Despite being in a “supporting” role, JLo is without fail elevating the entire movie with a performance that so easily could’ve been all camp and no heart in lesser hands and shorter stilettos.
8. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Céline Sciamma’s historical romance is about finding sanctuary in isolation and beauty in the familiar. This is a story told through intense eye contact, which sounds like a joke until you see it, but the camera seems to carry its own sense of longing in the way it captures these characters’ metamorphosis from uneasy acquaintances to passionate lovers, like we are remembering this romance instead of witnessing it. Electric is the only word that comes to mind.
7. The Farewell
Like many others, the first time I heard this story was on This American Life and while I found it touching and resonant, there was no way I could anticipate the full body reaction I would have to the film adaptation. Lulu Wang’s second film follows a large extended family as they prepare to say goodbye to their dying matriarch without actually telling her she’s dying. It is painful and hysterical, and hits every tender note perfectly thanks to the strong writing and Awkafina’s poignant performance.
Olivia Wilde’s new film has frequently been compared to a female version of Superbad, but I think that’s selling it short. Yes, it’s a goofy, dirty, sort-of-sexy comedy about two nerd best friends trying to make the most of their last night in high school, but Booksmart offers a lot more than that by not just going for the empty laughs. Clever writing and spot-on performances make it engaging, but it’s the sense that you’re witnessing a snapshot of a generation —as you might with films like Heathers or Sixteen Candles—that makes Booksmart something truly special and resonant.
I went into this film just a few days ago without having seen a trailer, avoiding all the rave reviews, not even registering the image on the poster until after I came out of the theater, and I felt truly rewarded for keeping my blinders on. Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or-winning film is tragic, hilarious, chilling, poetic, and the best surprise I’ve had at the movies in a long time.
4. Little Women
While I admired her for Lady Bird, I think Greta Gerwig’s rendition of Little Women is far and away the more impressive achievement. Adapting a story that’s been done so many times before (done well, I might add) and giving it a smart, fresh, insightful redressing is a nearly impossible task, but Gerwig pulls it off eloquently in what I think is the best adaptation to date. With a talented young cast, a sentimental but insightful understanding of the source material, and an inspired reformatting of the entire story, Gerwig continues to prove that she’s a gifted storyteller with a unique cinematic voice.
3. Avengers: Endgame
I don’t want to be that person who puts superhero movies on a pedestal but, by gum, I do love superhero movies and this is one of the best—not just of the year but across the entire genre. A culmination of over a decade of filmmaking across nearly two dozen movies, Endgame is so much more than its brand. It’s entertaining, it’s intelligent, it’s humorous, and above all it’s truly heartfelt. Endgame is historic for its feats at the box office, but what it should be remembered for is being an impressive feat in cinematic storytelling and a satisfying reward to its devoted audiences.
2. The Nightingale
I came out of this movie angry and upset and frankly I’ve felt pretty thoroughly tortured ever since watching it, but The Nightingale, in a way, is the movie I’ve always wanted. Even though it’s set in early 19th century Tasmania, in its heart of hearts, Jennifer Kent’s film is a classic Western revenge story with a grieving woman at its center. Aisling Franciosi, Baykali Ganambarr, and Sam Clafin give remarkable performances in this complex and brutal reflection on assault, genocide, redemption, violence, and justice. It is a beautiful and tragic film that asks the right questions and promises no false resolutions.
1. Marriage Story
From the moment I left the SLIFF (St. Louis International Film Festival) screening of Noah Baumbach’s newest feature, I felt like I’d witnessed something really true. I watched it several more times after that—with friends, by myself, and with each of my parents, who divorced when I was a young teenager. They considered my insistence on watching this movie to be some kind of penance they owed me, but I think what we all found watching it together was a very timely and hopeful sense of catharsis. Fiercely written, aggressively relevant, and a showcase for two of the finest actors of their generation, in what’s already been a stellar year for them both, Marriage Story is one of the best films 2019 has to offer.
Honorable Mentions: Britney Runs a Marathon, Clemency, John Wick 3: Parabellum, Jojo Rabbit, Knives Out, Little Monsters, Midsommar, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, The Two Popes, Uncut Gems, Us
If there is a theme among my 10 (really 11) finalists this year, it’s family. Knives Out is obviously about a dysfunctional family, films like 1917 and Queen & Slim are about a kind of family that can be forced upon us, and Midsommar is about discovering a new sense of home and community. Every film among my top three is also clearly about family, but to quote dads on road trips, we’ll get there when we get there. Here are my favorite films of 2019:
In a year filled with more than its fair share of breathtaking spectacle, 1917 stands in a class of its own. Sam Mendes and powerhouse cinematographer Roger Deakins have pushed the envelope on what can be done in “one-take” films: movies made to look as if they were filmed in one long shot. Perhaps it’s because I knew nothing about that aspect of the film going in, but the technical wizardry snuck up on me and then completely bowled me over. This is a man-on-a-mission film in the best possible way. It follows a British WWI soldier (George MacKay) as he attempts to deliver an important message to another front. He pushes through minefields, chaos, burned villages, and even some of his own disinterested or disbelieving countrymen in order to complete the task. It’s a film which will wring you out, but the journey is more than worth it. To say 1917 is gripping would be a gross understatement.
9. Knives Out
It’s always satisfying when something so intelligent, witty, and well-crafted garners such universal enthusiasm. Rian Johnson’s whodunnit about young caretaker Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas) and detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is a total delight from start to finish. We follow the Thrombeys, under the shadow of deceased patriarch and mystery author Harlan (Christopher Plummer), as they try to secure their individualized stakes in his fortune. They must also attempt to keep their motives concealed, since Harlan’s death first appears to be a suicide. Everyone’s hiding something, but not in the ways you might suspect. The superb writing and complete buy-in from the entire cast — including Chris Evans shedding Captain America for something much more devilish — adds up to a rollicking good time. Knives Out seems likely to endure as a staple entertainment for years to come, but it also says something very specific about 2019. No spoilers!
8. The Souvenir
Sometimes a film sticks around all year and just blossoms more and more in your mind. The Souvenir was one that did that for me, even as much as I loved it when I first saw it. This is the first of five A24 films on my list this year, and it must be said: A24 had their best year yet in 2019. This is a distribution company and a studio in the age of streaming that is supporting what the largest studios used to support much more frequently — theatrically released mid-budget films which take narrative risks. Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is an autobiographical romance about Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a film school student in a tempestuous relationship with an older man. Anthony (Tom Burke) has a serious drug problem, and Burke plays this perfectly. He hides it in almost a snakelike way, enigmatically sexy while also being a huge walking question mark. Visually, the film is classically made except for its structural emphasis on time and memory, which illustrates Julie’s connection to her haunted inner muse. It’s a tough, tough sit at times, but one I found deeply moving because of how up close and personal it gets with its subjects.
7. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
“Edge-of-your-seat” isn’t a term you’d typically use to describe a romance, but Céline Sciamma’s delicate and tender Portrait is as edge-of-your-seat as it gets. Noémie Merlant plays Marianne, a young painter in 18th century France. Marianne is commissioned to complete a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a young and moody upper-class debutante. However, she must do so without Héloïse knowing it, because the painting is to commemorate a likely unhappy marriage. Marianne pretends to be her friend and ward, but as the ruse breaks down, so do her defenses. The two are clearly attracted to each other from the start, but the film effectively twists the knife in before finally releasing that tension. It’s still a forbidden love, but one made all the more fascinating and entertaining by the rapt anticipation. Sciamma’s screenplay won the top writing prize at Cannes, and it’s easy to see why. Writing dialogue that conveys so much longing with so few enigmatic, cryptic words is a difficult business, and I would bet on Sciamma’s stock rising after such a swooning masterwork.
6. Queen & Slim
I can never track how pretentious I sound when using phrases like “visual poetry,” but that’s exactly the right way to describe Queen & Slim. A Bonnie and Clyde-ish romance about an African-American couple on the run after a police encounter, this film isn’t so much just timely as it is absolutely vital. What’s even more impressive here is that it’s just as artistically accomplished as it is message-based. I adored how this romance slowly developed, and how director Melina Matsoukas and screenwriter Lena Waithe married the relationship’s growth to the growth of a movement for justice. What’s more, I loved how these individual characters were developed; they each take turns being the brave or timid one, and each decision feels organic. Kudos to Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya for imbuing these characters with a sense of inner life far beyond their need to survive. The fire in their eyes is matched by the heat and intensity of the film’s visual language. Matsoukas’ debut feature is simply stunning.
5. The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Has a narrative film ever addressed contemporary gentrification and 21st-century housing issues before this? If one has, I’d like to see it. The Last Black Man in San Francisco feels almost revolutionary in its approach. It’s an austerely-made picture in many ways, but its inflections are what get its point across. Jimmie Fails plays a version of himself as he tries to reclaim his family’s Victorian home in the heart of San Francisco. It’s a housing market unkind to young people and people of color, but more than that it’s a market untrue to its citizenry and community. The elegiac moments of collective downward spiral as seen through Jimmie’s eyes are heartbreaking. Were it not for the humor and wit provided by Jonathan Majors as Montgomery, Jimmie’s best friend, the film might even be too depressing to be palatable. But the charming yin and yang of their friendship carries the film’s message quite gracefully. After the film’s release, director Joe Talbot received many letters from viewers speaking to the fact that the same issues in San Francisco’s housing market are occurring all across America. Going into an election year where only a handful of candidates have presented housing as a major issue, this film is as vital as it gets. Sidebar: Jonathan Majors deserves an Oscar nomination for this.
Is there any better brand for intelligent horror today than A24? They’ve now basically snagged two of the top young talents in the genre in directors Robert Eggers (The Witch, The Lighthouse) and Ari Aster (Hereditary) as part of their overall branding strategy. Eggers’ debut The Witch is one of the most well-respected films of the decade, and at this rate, Aster may catch up to that legacy soon. Aster’s Midsommar is not only brilliant for being creepy in daylight, but the execution of the subtextual discussion about the ways men treat women is astonishing. The great Florence Pugh stars as Dani, a young girl who tags along with her semi-scummy boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) to what they think is a traditional Swedish summer festival. The couple and their friends soon realize there’s something strange going on, but the culture-shock aspect of the trip keeps them as polite and respectful as possible — until a clear breaking point. Midsommar is not about survival, but it is instead about being reborn and finding new family. The emotional elements at play are as old as time, but Aster remixes them in such a fresh and interesting way that it’s easy to see why this was such a solid success, both critically and financially. If you liked the theatrical version, I’d encourage you to watch the director’s cut on the blu-ray or digital copy. It’s not my preferred cut of the two, but it leans in more on the central relationship and gives a bit more clarity in certain areas.
Now that I’ve invoked two of the top three horror directors today, I must bring up the third: Jordan Peele. What I love about his second film, Us, is that it can be interpreted a variety of different ways and still appear just as bold, just as complex, and just as profound a statement about America. Lupita Nyong’o is nothing short of brilliant as the two sides of Adelaide, the “normal” side of whom descends into madness after discovering a world of doppelgängers that looks just like her and her family. From my vantage point, Us gets at the nagging feeling all of us have in America — and which certainly has been brought to the fore in the last few years — that there is a subset of the populous that may never be treated with the respect they deserve as human beings, simply because they are on the lowest rung of an economic system which has totally thrown them overboard. It feels like the story of a revolt, and the twists and turns keep it more engaging than it might have been as some sort of genre polemic or lecture.
2. Uncut Gems
Yes, Adam Sandler deserves an Oscar nomination. But what’s even more impressive about Uncut Gems is its thematic range. This is a film about power, mostly searched for by men. As a New York diamond district jeweler with celebrity customers, Howard’s (Sandler) quest for more, always more, is only trumped by the thugs he has running after him. He’s addicted to gambling and/or doubling his money whenever even remotely possible, even if it’s not probable. This has awful consequences on his family life, his financial well-being, and his already fragile psyche. The propulsive way in which the Safdie Brothers told this tale brought me to the edge of my seat and actually made me sweat. Howard is not a likable guy per se, but you do end up rooting for him because — as the film communicates surprisingly eloquently — we all have a bit of that gambler in us.
1. Waves / Little Women (TIE)
Young gun Trey Edward Shults has now proven that he is a force to be reckoned with. His directorial debut, Krisha was an exercise in extreme tension, and it was praised mostly on those merits. Now at age 31 and with two feature films under his belt, Waves feels like the movie he’s always wanted to make. The first half plays out a lot like Krisha, with high school wrestler Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) caught in the crosshairs of a dicey situation. We see his annoyances and lack of self-awareness pile up over time, until every bad feeling in his life snowballs into one horrific act of violence. The film then gracefully transitions into its transcendent second half, where Tyler’s father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) and younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell) sort out their response to both Tyler and their part in his journey. It’s a beautiful, skyward look towards redemption, and as well as it’s executed, it’s elevated even higher by the performance of Taylor Russell, who if not for the stupid politics of financing awards campaigns, would rightfully win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Everyone I’ve talked to who’s seen the film singles her performance out as one of Waves’ best qualities, and one of the best performances of the year. It’s hard to imagine anything landing with more of a gut-punch in my soul than Waves.
This film is destined to become a Christmas tradition in my house. Not only is Greta Gerwig’s direction and keen eye for craftsmanship on full display, but this version of the Louisa May Alcott novel serves as a time capsule to showcase some of the very best young actors working today. Every part of this adaptation has killer performances, whether it’s the great Saoirse Ronan as the headstrong Jo, the queen of 2019 Florence Pugh as the rambunctious Amy, Emma Watson delivering a career-best turn as Meg, or the ever-beloved Timothée Chalamet, charming as ever as Laurie. The balance of playfulness and regret makes this movie sing with life’s highs and lows. We’re basically watching two winters — one a magical Christmas and the other a tough pill to swallow — intercut around Jo as kind of a stand-in for Alcott. It’s a bold and fresh take, one which honors the text and at the same time honors the language of cinema. Best Picture buzz is already building, and it’s not hard to see why. I’m with the majority of moviegoers on this one; I just adored it. Sidebar: this is Alexandre Desplat’s best film score yet.
Honorable Mentions: Honey Boy, Little Woods, The Art of Self-Defense, Mike Wallace is Here, Avengers: Endgame, Lynch: A History, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Marriage Story, Jojo Rabbit, Ash is Purest White, A Hidden Life, Parasite, Hustlers, Booksmart, The Lighthouse.
Thanks for reading, everyone! See you in the new year!