By Andrea Thompson
I state that my list wasn’t too late, 2020 came too early. So here are my top 25 movies of 2019.
25. Avengers: Endgame
Walt Disney Studios
Fan service doesn’t have to be a bad thing. While “Avengers: Endgame” mostly gave fans what they wanted, it was also a fond farewell to an MCU that had been building for over a decade, one that would be greatly altered by the movie’s end. Making good use of its three hour runtime, “Endgame” takes it time wandering through its own universe in a way that’s both heartfelt and entertaining before getting the gang together in an absolutely jaw-dropping, action-packed climax that had the most jaded moviegoers cheering.
24. Knives Out
Rian Johnson may have had a complicated year, but “Knives Out” has him on top of his game. Johnson has built a career around toying with audience expectations in the most enjoyable way possible, and he does so yet again in “Knives Out,” giving us a whodunit that seems to reveal who in fact dun it pretty early, only to provide even more layers to peel back. After wealthy patriarch Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) dies in an apparent suicide, gentleman detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is hired to investigate, only to discover some very combative family dynamics, with caregiver and audience surrogate Marta (Ana de Armas) caught in the middle. Anchored by an all-star cast that also includes Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, LaKeith Stanfield, Toni Collette, and Chris Evans, Johnson keeps the mystery and the fun coming from start to finish.
Just when you think the eight isolated teenage soldiers in “Monos” are treating the unnamed war they’re fighting in like a neverending slumber party, tragedy strikes, and they become very aware of what the consequences of failure are, and the life or death stakes they’re involved in. As they descend from their remote base in the mountains to the jungles below, their bond is torn and transformed into something far darker, as the beauty of their natural surroundings likewise becomes less of a contrast and more of a complement to humanity’s brutality. Moisés Arias is a standout as the group’s charismatic leader, who likewise leads his charges (and peers) into their own increasingly insular culture, as the bonds of adolescence enable them to surrender more and more of their humanity.
22. Toy Story 4
Walt Disney Studios
“Toy Story 4” certainly had no business being good. It was another sequel in a franchise that seemed to wrap everything up neatly in the last film, not only giving Woody (Tom Hanks) and his pals a happy ending, but reassurance that life would go on after their beloved Andy grew up and grew beyond them. So what else was left to stir any kind of conflict interesting enough to prevent one of the most creative and commercially successful film series ever made from devolving into one of the most cynical cash grabs of all time? Thankfully, quite a bit, and it mostly amounts to a case of white male anxiety. Woody had always been sure of his purpose, but when he runs into Bo Peep (Annie Potts), he’s inspired to rethink his life, as his former love has transformed from the demure, delicate toy who stayed behind on adventures to a capable leader who’s embraced life without a child, assists other discarded toys, and plans to see more of the world. It all amounts to a progressive message, that of being who you are right now. Life may change, and your place in it can become frighteningly precarious, but you should never be defined by your past, whether it was scarred by tragedy, or was the source of your happiest moments. Throughout it all, friendships, family, and love can last. To infinity and beyond.
“Hustlers” is one of those films that could’ve just been a puritanical cautionary tale about the dangers of girls gone wild. Good thing writer-director Lorene Scafaria saves her anger for the patriarchy rather than the strippers who come up with a plan to turn the tables on their Wall Street clients after the recession hits. Even smarter, Scafaria anchors her story in the friendship between Ramona (Jennifer Lopez in a career-best performance), the originator of the scheme, and Destiny (Constance Wu). Before 2008, they and their co-workers are able to earn more than a good living, but after the financial crisis, their profession becomes less than viable. So they decide to drug wealthy Wall Street men and get them to spend ridiculous amounts of money, which they would then keep for themselves. By giving women who are normally sexualized furniture center stage, Scafaria allows us to share their delight in scamming the scammers, then their fear as their world inevitably unravels, resulting in an insightful, female-centric crime story that mostly unfolds sans judgment.
20. The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Gentrification has been given the movie treatment before, but “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” doesn’t just show the scope of its horrors, it makes you feel them. In this world, it’s perfectly feasible for a little girl to happily skip down the street while men in hazard suits are cleaning up the water, as long as she resides in a neighborhood the rest of San Francisco is determined to leave behind in its mad rush for profit. Jimmie Fails (co-writer Jimmie Fails, who plays a fictionalized version of himself) has one thing to cling to though: a beautiful house in the heart of the city, which was built by his grandfather after he returned home from WWII, and is now occupied by an older white couple. When the couple departs, Jimmie and his friend Mont (Jonathan Majors) decide to move in as squatters in a desperate attempt to reclaim it. A tribute to a city that provokes love and despair in equal measure, “The Last Black Man” is a devastating indictment of an America that claims to reward hard work, yet often condemns those who are born with the most odds to overcome.
19. Ready Or Not
In-laws can be tough, but the clan in “Ready or Not” could probably teach the Lannisters a thing or two. Having grown up in foster care, Grace (Samara Weaving) is eager to bond with her new family, so she happily participates in their tradition of choosing a random game to play on her wedding night. But when she draws the card “Hide and Seek,” she discovers that her new relatives believe that if they are unable to find her and kill her before the night is over, they will lose their vast family fortune. In addition to making the honeymoon awkward, Grace must fight to stay alive in an environment where everyone now regards her as disposable, an acceptable sacrifice to keep the money flowing in. As wickedly funny as it is violently entertaining, “Ready or Not” is a surprisingly heartfelt tribute to humanism and the benefits of being an outsider…especially when insiders have murder on their minds.
Sam Mendes has a reputation for intensity, but his harrowing war drama “1917” brings more suspense and terror than most horror movies. During WWI, two young British soldiers are given a seemingly impossible mission of going behind enemy lines to deliver a message. If they make it through, they’ll not only prevent a disastrous attack, but save quite a few lives, including the brother of one of the soldiers. Shot to give the effect of one continuous take, Mendes turns what might have been a gimmick and uses it to capture the horrors of war, and the humanity that often emerges in spite of it, all in a technically masterful work that showcases a filmmaker at the height of his storytelling abilities.
17. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Given that 2018 saw the release of the critically and commercially successful documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” did 2019 really need another film about Fred Rogers? Hold that thought, because “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” makes an enthusiastic case for yes. It’s probably no coincidence that the posters for both films also mention kindness, since Fred Rogers not only advocated it, he seemed to embody it, and not only to the children who were the target audience of his wildly successful show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Even if Tom Hanks doesn’t have much of a resemblance to Mr. Rogers, he nevertheless seems to channel him and the values he tirelessly championed to an uncanny degree, enough to make journalist Lloyd Vogel’s (Matthew Rhys) journey from cynic to believer feel fresh rather than tired. Director Marielle Heller also brings the same clear-eyed compassion that made “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” and “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” so heartfelt to this story of a budding friendship between two very different men.
16. Her Smell
Elisabeth Moss has long since proven she’s a force of nature, more recently on the Hulu series “The Handmaid’s Tale.” So what more does she have to prove with the film “Her Smell?” Quite a lot it turns out. If “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a showcase for Moss’s powers of restrained passion, then “Her Smell” allows her to tear up the screen like a tornado, destroying all the mere mortals unfortunate enough to become swept into her path as the self-destructive punk rocker Becky Something. As Becky’s mood shifts with the rapidity of a deranged pinball, she can’t seem to latch on to anything resembling stability, despite the efforts of her bandmates, collaborators, and ex-husband to steer her towards a healthier direction. Or just anywhere other than the rock bottom she seems determined to hit with full force. If Becky’s downward spiral is difficult to watch, it’s even harder to look away, as Moss infuses her with a charismatic talent that makes the inescapable tragedy feel Shakespearean in scope.
15. Varda By Agnes
If the documentary “Varda By Agnès” is difficult to define, it’s because the late great filmmaker Agnès Varda herself defies anything resembling easy categorization. Like her other films, the premise of “Varda By Agnès” is deceptively simple, yet soon reveals layers of complexity which unfold throughout, as Varda looks back on her life and career while articulating her style of filmmaking. However, the doc is far more than a retrospective, and far less predictable, at one moment reminiscent of a casual chat with an old friend, the next an imaginative journey wherein a great artist instructs devoted cinephiles and neophytes alike on how she not only viewed, but interpreted the world. It’s a fitting end to a decades-long career and life, both of which 90-year-old Varda defined on her own terms to the end.
14. The Farewell
A movie with a character who happens to be a terminally ill grandmother is a tough sell for a comedy. But the matriarch who receives a fatal cancer diagnosis isn’t just a side character in “The Farewell,” she’s the central plot point. After struggling New Yorker Billi’s (Awkwafina) beloved Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) is diagnosed, her family opt to keep her illness a secret and decide to throw a fake wedding to provide an excuse for them all to gather in China and celebrate Nai Nai one last time. And it’s…pretty funny, with not just the expected dark humor, but a wide spectrum of hilarity abounding alongside the touching moments of grief. Based in part on writer-director Lulu Wang’s own experiences, “The Farewell” is apt to make you laugh and cry not just in equal measure, but simultaneously.
13. Little Woods
You can never have too much of Tessa Thompson, and “Little Woods” allows her to fully immerse herself into a role and world where a single wrong step could tear through a life with the force of a tornado. And she downright mesmerizes as Ollie, who finds herself in tight circumstances with a mere eight days left on her probation and the hope of a new life. Or rather, her somewhat estranged sister Deb (Lily James) does after their mother dies, and Deb and her son find themselves on the verge of homelessness and destitution. To help her family, Ollie decides to reenter the world of prescription drug smuggling, a dangerous but profitable business in their bleak rural North Dakota town. Remarkably, this is director Nia DaCosta’s feature debut, and the fact that she gives us a brilliantly realized modern Western with a feminist twist, where a drug run to Canada also doubles as an attempt to receive a safe and low-cost abortion, is hopefully indicative of much more to come. Thankfully, there are already hopeful signs of just that.
12. Dolemite is my Name
Just when you think Eddie Murphy might be teetering on the edge of irrelevance, he reminds you why he’s a pop culture phenomenon by tearing up the screen as Blaxploitation legend Rudy Ray Moore, who became famous in the 70s for his portrayal of alter ego Dolemite in his film and stand-up career. Even if we’re aware of how this is going to end, with Moore investing – and risking – everything he’s built to make a film based on his Dolemite character, Murphy is astounding, radiating joy as he brings his larger-than-life energy and charisma to Moore, who was similarly magnetic. And it’s not just Moore, but the people he’s gathered around him who succeed as well, many of whom were just as underused by the mainstream entertainment industry. As they all revel in building and profiting off a film made on their own terms, it’s the kind of tender, inspirational tribute that earns every bit of its charm and intensity.
11. Queen & Slim
“Queen & Slim” kicks off with its title characters on a date that is only remarkable for its lack of spark, but things get heated in the worst way after a police offer pulls them over for a minor issue, and things escalate, with Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) getting shot and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) shooting the officer in self defense. The two then go on the run together, with their bond and their relationship blossoming as they drive south through a lush vision of Black Americana. That they both come off as deeply human while remaining symbolic of the tragic human cost of racism seems due in large part to the near symbiotic creative melding of director Melina Matsoukas, who also directed Beyonce’s “Lemonade,” and writer Lena Waithe, the creator of the series “The Chi” and who also wrote the acclaimed “Master of None” episode “Thanksgiving.” Their story is tragic, but it is also full of beauty and humor as Queen and Slim dare to hope for something better, even as they know the odds against such a thing are overwhelmingly stacked against them.
10. Fast Color
It’s said that not all heroes wear capes, and certainly none of the women with superhuman abilities do in “Fast Color.” This criminally underseen gem has many of the beats, but almost none of the familiar tropes of typical superhero fare. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays a woman named Ruth, a fugitive on the run from authorities attempting to harness her abilities, and most critically, from herself, since those abilities have become a destructive force she’s unable to control. In this bleak dystopian future which is rapidly running low on resources, the key to Ruth’s future may just lie in the home she fled years ago, where her estranged mother (Lorraine Toussaint) and daughter (Saniyya Sidney) embody a past she tried to escape, and a more hopeful future they may be able to bring to fruition.
9. The Souvenir
Joanna Hogg’s semi-autographical film “The Souvenir” is like a deceptively calm pond which conceals a raging torrent just beneath the surface. Honor Swinton Byrne, the woman responsible for the storm that’s eventually unleashed, may still be constantly referred to as Tilda Swinton’s daughter, but this film suggests that won’t be the case for long. Her performance as Julie, a young film student in the 80s whose dreams are nearly derailed by her involvement with an older man who is also a heroin addict, is the kind of on-screen arrival that the term breakout role was made for. With part two arriving next year, it’s hard to imagine how Hogg or Byrne will match the kind of urgency they brought to this film, but this creative pairing – which feels like a match made in cinematic heaven – could feasibly pull it off.
8. One Child Nation
One Child Nation
Director Nanfu Wang grew up in a time when China’s infamous one-child policy was at its height, with every facet of society extolling the virtues of having a smaller family…and the consequences of disobedience. After Wang had a son, she decided to investigate the policy she’d never given much thought to and its impact. When she uncovered was a complex and horrific hidden history of forced abortions, child abandonment, and infants who were literally torn from their arms of their families and given to American couples for adoption, who were tragically unaware that they were abetting kidnapping. Wang fearlessly confronts her own complicity and that of her family and community as she delves into the past, and how China is attempting to erase it from its future.
7. Uncut Gems
If we’re our own worst enemies, then Adam Sandler’s New York City jeweler Howard Ratner will never have a worse one. A gambling addict who’s always in search of that next big score, his need for his drug of choice has wreaked havoc on his personal and professional life. He’s managed to get his hands on the titular gem that may finally change his luck…if he can somehow hold off on his on self-sabotaging impulses. Anchored by not only a career-best performance by Sandler, but a breakout one by Julia Fox as Howard’s mistress, the Safdie brothers immerse us into Howard’s world, then his mindset as he unravels, all the while clinging to the belief in that one big break that could still change everything.
In exploring the history of mental illness in America, director Kenneth Paul Rosenberg explores his own family, and how they reacted to his sister’s mental health struggles, then expands his scope into the personal and political ramifications of how we decide to treat a hidden social crisis of our time, one that is steadily worsening. As he travels to jails, Ers, and homeless camps, Rosenberg grounds his documentary with subjects who permit him a staggering amount of access to the highs and lows of their journeys to stability, and more often, how ill-equipped the system is to assist them. It will leave you emotionally gutted, but also with a much-needed greater understanding of a large population who are in desperate need of both compassion and assistance.
No one escapes unscathed in “Luce,” including us, as director Julius Onah slowly but surely tightens his grip on our collective throats, forcing us to realize how even the most privileged among us are caught up in a system that ultimately demeans us all, with little doubt as to just who bears the brunt of the consequences. The titular Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) first seems to have it all and more. Adopted as a child from war-torn African county by suburban white couple Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth), Luce is a star athlete, a top student, and popular with students and teachers alike. It’s only when his teacher Harriet (Octavia Spencer) alerts his parents to a potentially disturbing essay by Luce that the cracks in the facade start to show, and Amy realizes just how little she may know the son she’s loved and raised, and perhaps also tokenized. Harrison’s masterful performance is equal parts chilling and heartbreaking as a young man who may be capable of great and terrible things. Just what will Luce become? The film has no answer.
4. Little Women
Greta Gerwig didn’t just write and direct Louisa May Alcott’s beloved 1868 novel, she brought it to life, with each of the four March sisters getting their due. Yes, even Amy. One of the most brilliant decisions Gerwig makes is to bring the book to the big screen in a nonlinear fashion, juxtaposing scenes from the sisters’ idyllic childhood with their darker adulthood. While the Civil War rages, depriving them of their father, the March family becomes a matriarchal worldutopia, wherein Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Beth (Eliza Scanlen), and Amy (Florence Pugh) are free to explore their hopes and ambitions, guided by their beloved Marmee (Laura Dern), and befriended by their wealthy neighbor Laurie (Timothée Chalamet). As each sister struggles to find her way, Gerwig takes care to ensure that their lives not only feel familiar, but relevant as each wrestles with how to balance their dreams with the narrow expectations imposed on them.
Mati Diop made history in more ways than one with her feature debut “Atlantics.” She was the first black woman to have a film in the main competition at Cannes, where “Atlantics” won the Grand Prix. The film more than lives up to the hype, with a touching love story that is also part supernatural fable and devastating indictment of modern exploitation and rampant poverty. Ada (Mama Bineta Sane) lives in a Senegalese suburb, and is promised to a wealthy man. But she is in love with Souleiman (Traore), a construction worker on a futuristic tower which is due to open soon. Souleiman and his co-workers haven’t been paid for their labor in months, so they decide to take their chances and depart by sea in search of something better. As Ada waits for news of him as she prepares to marry, she gradually learns that the spirits of Souleiman and the other young men are possessing the bodies of the living and demanding justice. As Ada slowly comes to accept the truth and take control of her own life and body (she’s forced to take a virginity test), Diop infuses her story with a beauty that never belies its sense of urgency for compassion in a world that can often seem short on it.
The word parasite conjures up images of a creature which takes from a victimized host without a thought of giving or the consequences thereof, but as Bong Joon-ho’s latest slice of brilliance unfolds, it’s unclear just whom is feeding on whom. But in the vicious capitalistic times we’ve arrived in, perhaps everyone is feeding on everyone, whether they know it or not. In the story of the impoverished Kim family, who manage to scam their way into various positions of employment with the wealthy Park family, Bong Joon-ho serves up a scathing indictment of the inequality which twists haves and have-nots alike. As one jaw-dropping development after another threatens to deprive the Kims of their newfound prosperity, both families suffer the horrific consequences. And even if you are able to free yourself from the dark obsession inherent in wanting a good life which remains tantalizingly out of reach, the vicious cycle, one borne out of a need that will never be quenched, continues.
1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
If Céline Sciamma had just wrote and directed a romance between two women who find the kind of love that leaves the screen burning from their mutual passion, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” would still have been one of the best films of the year. But Sciamma does so much more, making the case for an entire history that has mostly been unacknowledged by the art world. Not just of the female artists who managed to create in spite of the obstacles, but the lives of women in general, who are often not considered worthwhile subjects. (Times have sure changed, huh?) “Portrait” may take place in 18th century France, but its insights into the dynamics between artist and muse, how art is created, and how those who are silenced manage to find a voice, feels very much needed in our present moment.