The year of 2020 is upon us, and a new decade begins. Usually the end of the decade calls for a retrospective on the previous decade that was, and I will be getting to that too in the weeks ahead. But for this first week of the year, I’m going to focus on the year we just went through, 2019, and share my thoughts on what went on with the movies over that time. 2019 was a pretty significant year when it came to the distribution of films. Netflix’s influence on the business was palpable, as both Disney and Apple made their debuts in the streaming market as a direct challenge to the supremacy that Netflix had enjoyed in the field. Movie theaters had not been completely affected too much yet, as box office sales were still high, though not record numbers. One studio however, Disney, did have a record setting year, as they delivered just an onslaught of blockbuster movies during this last calendar year. Riding the wave of huge finales for their Marvel and Star Wars properties, as well as remakes of their beloved animated classics and new animated sequels, Disney took a whopping 40% of the box office share this year, with Warner Brothers being the only credible challenger thanks to the success of Joker (2019). The Fox merger also boosted Disney’s box office stake, and suddenly Hollywood began to a look a lot different in such a short amount of time. But as far as the quality of movies goes, this was actually a strong year overall for the industry. So much so that it was actually quite hard to create a top ten list this year. There were so many good films made this year that I had to make some hard choices about what to leave out, as I try to limit myself to just the standard 10. Even the runners up are worthy of anyone’s top tens for the year, as I’m sure many of them likely will be. But, I made my choices below and I’m sticking by them.
Before I begin, here are 10 in no particular order that nearly made my list: 1917, Little Women, Joker, Dolemite is My Name, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, They Shall Not Grow Old, Parasite, The Farewell, Knives Out, and Under the Silver Lake. And now, let’s get to my Top 10 Movies of 2019.
TOY STORY 4
Directed by Josh Cooley
It seemed pretty impossible. Toy Story 3 (2010) was the perfect ending for a trilogy that has come to define excellence in animation. It wrapped up the story-line spread across three movies, released over a fifteen year span, on such a perfect note with Andy saying goodbye to all of his beloved toys in a heartfelt, emotionally impactful scene. There was no way that Pixar could ever pick up the story again after that in any satisfying way. But, somehow miraculously, they managed to do it. Toy Story 4 is that fourth chapter of a story that you never asked for, and yet it is exactly what you needed. Thanks to a deftly written script by Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton and newcomer Stephany Folsom, we learn that saying goodbye to Andy was just the end of a chapter, and not for the whole book. There was one more adventure to go, at least for Woody. Here, we are given the definitive conclusion to this on-going series, and it still delivers. All the characters that we’ve grown to love are all back, and the movie even manages to fit in a few more new favorites. I particularly loved the daredevil action figure named Duke Caboom (voiced hilariously by a game Keanu Reeves). The movie also marks a triumphant return for Bo Peep (voiced again by Annie Potts) who really comes into her own in this film. I never thought Pixar could thread the needle again with their flagship franchise, given how high the bar had been set by it’s predecessors, but they managed to do it, showing just how good they are with their artform. In particular, it does the characters the most justice, giving them a sendoff worthy of what has been built before. The final scene with Woody and Buzz Lightyear is especially emotional. If you loved everything else from this series, this will also be another one you’ll cherish; to infinity and beyond.
Directed by Robert Eggers
Put this down as 2019’s most unusual film; and that’s saying a lot. In a year defined by unique horror movies like Ari Aster’s Midsommar and Gasper Noe’s Climax, Robert Eggers The Lighthouse stood out even more. This black and white, narrowly framed avant garde nightmare of a film is really unlike anything else you’ll likely experience at the movies. And that’s what made it so memorable, and in many ways, delightfully subversive. In equal measures a character study, a surrealist mind trip, a screwball comedy, and a horrific descent into madness, this is movie that uniquely carves out it’s own path and you can’t take your eyes off of it. Containing a cast of only two for the entirety of it’s run-time (minus the quick glimpse of a mermaid), this movie is carried by it’s stars, Willem Dafoe and a revelatory Robert Pattinson, who seem hell bent on trying to out crazy the other. There is plenty of excellent back and forth between the two, leading to some of the most demented monologues that you’ll ever an actor speak without catching their breath. And the cinematography is stunning in this movie as well, capturing the absolute isolation and ravaging that the elements wreck on the tiny little island that house the titular lighthouse. For the most part, you’ll probably be left wondering if any of the bizarre stuff seen in this movie is real or not, and the movie does an excellent job of keeping it’s audience in the dark, even up to the very end. It’s definitely not for everyone, but it pleased the cinephile in me, as it hearkens back to very early cinema; like a silent expressionist film, but with sound also playing a key factor. No doubt Eggers was influenced by these movies too, and it gave him the inspiration for a movie that is likely going to be remembered as a bold cinematic experiment.
THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON
Directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz
This was something of a comeback year for Shia LaBeouf. After a few years of getting in trouble with the law and making less than ideal life choices, which took a toll on his struggling film career, Shia began to take some control over his life and that included making bolder choices with his films. He got to write an autobiographical script while doing a stint in rehab, which turned into the film Honey Boy, which deals with the turbulent relationship he had with his father, whom he plays himself in the movie. It’s an excellent display of catharsis on his part, showing that he is making an effort to heal the trauma of his past that had put him on the wrong path. More importantly, Shia is trying a lot harder as an actor, and the movie that really showed off how much he has grown this past year was the charming little indie The Peanut Butter Falcon. Here he plays a wayward troublemaker trying to make an escape who by chance runs into a young runaway with special needs, played by a scene-stealing Zack Gottsagen. The movie then turns into a beautiful, Mark Twain-esque journey, exploring the often unseen world of the Mississippi Delta region. The relationship between the two characters is a charming delight to watch, equal parts uplifting and side-splitting hilarious. Shia especially makes his rough edges work well for the character here, and he is perfectly matched with his co-star Gottsagen, who makes a breakthrough here for special needs actors. The locals are gorgeously captured and the story is simple but emotionally resonate, much in the same vein as many of the great Twain stories of old. If this and Honey Boy are any indication, Shia’s career is finally looking like it’s turning a corner in a positive way. And it helps when you make a movie like this that is just plain delightful to it’s core.
ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
You got to hand it to Mr. Tarantino. He’s not shy about sharing his obsession with film in all the movies that he makes. Most of the time, he limits it to clever in jokes or overt references. But with Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, he gets to finally deliver a love letter to all things cinema in his own way. The movie takes place in a particular time in Hollywood that Tarantino was interested in; centered around the notorious Manson Family Murders in 1969. But this movie is about the Manson Murders as much as Reservoir Dogs (1991) was about a bank robbery or Pulp Fiction (1994) was about a briefcase. He even plays the events of those murders out in a revisionist history style like what he implemented with WWII in Inglorious Basterds (2009) with the tables turned. This upset historical purists, but at the same time, Tarantino spells out exactly what he’s doing from the beginning. This movie is first and foremost a fairy tale; it’s called Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood after all. And like most fairy tales, his Hollywood is full of it’s valiant knights, it’s roguish warriors, it’s fair princesses, it’s warrior queens, and it’s evil warlocks; namely the actors, the crewmen, the starlets, the dedicated performers, and the con artists. All these incredible characters populate this wonderful cornucopia of Tinseltown that Tarantino has crafted. At it’s center is this wonderful bromance between his two leads played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, as a temperamental fading star and his devoted stunt man. Margot Robbie also delivers a beautiful turn as the legendary Sharon Tate, whose real life inspiration was the tragic light of an older, innocent Hollywood that got snuffed out by the Manson family. The recreation of this bygone era on the real Hollywood Boulevard is done with remarkable attention to detail, and shows just how much Tarantino wanted to bring his ideal version of Hollywood back to glorious life. It’s a love letter of the best kind, and a treat for all fans of cinema.
Directed by Todd Douglas Miller
It’s amazing to think that the best documentary of the year features not one interview and is comprised entirely of footage shot 50 years ago. And yet, Director Todd Douglas Miller managed to craft a remarkable, you are there experience chronicling the monumental first moon landing on it’s fiftieth anniversary. All of the footage used in the film is real footage shot during the mission from a variety of different vantage points. This includes a lot of footage that has never been made public before, including some truly incredible footage. Included in the movie are remarkable 70mm footage of the rocket launch from ground level, the complete uncut orbital descent to the surface of the moon taken from Buzz Aldrin’s own camera, and an alternate, color film angle of Neil Armstrong’s first step. And it’s all edited together in sequence, giving you a moment by moment experience unlike any other depiction of the moon landing we’ve seen. It’s mind boggling how much footage there exists of this mission (and yes conspiracy theorists out there, this footage is 100% authentic, so consider yourself debunked). The movie also brilliantly ties everything together with the real comm-link communication between the astronauts and the Houston Mission Command Center. The only fabrication this documentary adds are sound effects, helping to give the experience more of a cinematic feel. No matter what, this will likely be the definitive cinematic presentation of this monumental human achievement. Not even First Man (2018) managed to hit with this kind of emotional impact. This is as epic as documentary film-making can get, and it’s amazing to think that it took 50 full years for this footage to even be seen as it was intended. Thankfully this movie is the best possible presentation to show it all and it demands to be seen on the biggest possible screen that you can find.
Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo
By all accounts this movie should never have worked. Not only did it need to satisfyingly wrap up the story first set up in Avengers: Infinity War the year prior, but it also had to conclude 10 years and 22 films’ worth of on-going narratives that have all linked together in one way or another. It also had to follow one of the most notorious and shocking cliffhangers in cinema history, as well as deliver a plot that could subvert all our fan theories and still satisfy. Oh, and it also ended up clocking in at three hours, the longest super hero movie ever by a wide margin. Needless to say, a lot was riding on this movie, and somehow, Marvel miraculously did what it set out to do. Sticking the landing would be an understatement. This movie is both exactly what we wanted and also not what we were expecting at all. We knew that all those heroes dusted away at the end of Infinity War were coming back, but we didn’t know exactly how, and what is brilliant about the movie is that it undercuts the hopeful resolution almost immediately, leaving the audience with a decidedly off-guard sense throughout the rest of the film. I love the fact that nothing is an easy fix for the Avengers in the movie, and that they actually had to live with some of the trauma of the losing their friends and loved ones for a long time. It’s something you don’t see play out that often in movies like this. But at the same time, it does deliver on all the expected highs as well. The final act of this movie is a prime example of how to do fan service right. It’s just one brilliant payoff after another. This was probably my favorite in theater experience watching a movie this year. Hearing an audience of 400 people all cheer out at once over the lifting of a hammer by a certain character is something that you’ll never forget. In addition, it provides a beautifully told swan song to the original Avengers team formed in the 2012 film, as some of the characters’ story arcs come to a fitting end in this film. Marvel says they had an “endgame” plan all along from the moment they launched this Cinematic Universe, and Avengers: Endgame is a plan perfectly executed, with even more hope given to the future ahead. I loved it 3000.
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Taking a break from talking about the big and epic from last year, here we have a movie that is small and intimate in all the best ways. With Marriage Story, director Noah Baumbach tells the story of a family breaking apart with the most minute of character details revealed through the whole experience. It’s a movie that doesn’t take sides, but instead shows the painful process that divorce can be and how it brings out the worst in even good people. It’s certainly not the first movie to tackle such an issue, but it’s one that absolutely feels like one of the most authentic portrayals of the process of divorce we’ve ever seen on screen. The actors utterly disappear into their roles, and it’s almost like we’re ease-dropping in on a real couple breaking apart before our eyes. It’s heartbreaking, truthful, as well as uplifting and at times very funny. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson deliver two of the year’s best performances as the couple in question, growing more resentful of each other while still trying to cling to that hopeful kinship that brought them together in the first place. There is a rawness to their arguments in the movie that creates some of the most tension filled scenes of the year; all the more remarkable considering that none of it deviated from Baumbach’s script. One particular fight masterfully progresses from cordial, to sarcastic, to furiously enraged, to finally tearful and it is all feels authentic. Even the moments on their own, the actors shine. Johanssen has a single take monologue that is astonishingly presented, and Driver even gets to literally sing his feelings away. It’s a movie that reminds me of the laid back dramas of the late 70’s like Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) in all the best ways. Sometimes the best dramas are the ones found in just an ordinary family.
Directed by Benny and Josh Safdie
Never thought I’d see an Adam Sandler movie this high on my best of the year list. Sandler is no stranger to dramatic roles, famously venturing out of his comfort zone for Paul Thomas Anderson’s romantic comedy Punch Drunk Love (2002) in a brilliant, underrated performance. Since then, he retreated back to his patented screwball comedy style, which sadly led to diminishing returns over the years. But this year, Sandler made a triumphant return to drama in a knockout role in this new film from the Safdie brothers. And boy, this movie will blindside you and knock you down completely in a way that you not believe. This movie can be described as an anxiety attack in film form, with every twist and turn just driving the tension up further to near unbearable points. And the fact that Sandler is the one at the center of all this madness and delivering a performance so perfectly tuned to the story it’s telling is something quite miraculous. It would be an absolute shame if he isn’t nominated for an Oscar for what is likely going to be the greatest performance he’ll ever give, though I feel that might likely happen. Even still, the depths he goes with this character are amazing. You just see him take more and more unnecessary risks all in the pursuit of fulfilling that glorious huge payday, and the bad choices just keep on building. As a shady jewel peddler, he runs afoul of gangsters, creditors, spiteful exes, and even NBA legend Kevin Garnett. The Safdie brothers aggressively vibrant visual style also drives up the uneasiness of the situations and it makes the entire experience of watching this character self-destruct all the more memorable. And while Sandler’s character is the definition of a scumbag, you still end up rooting for him by the film’s end, which is a testament to his performance. Again, pretty miraculous that Adam Sandler ended up giving one of the year’s best performances in one year’s best films. The talent was always there; it’s just that someone needed to recognize it in him and wrestle it out.
Directed by Martin Scorsese
With films like Fernando Meirelles’ The Two Popes, David Michod’s The King, and the previously mentioned Marriage Story from Noah Baumbach, 2019 was going to be Netflix’s big push for Oscar Gold after loosing out the year prior when their film Roma (2018) lost out to Green Book (2018). And while all these movies are strong contenders, there was never any doubt that Netflix’s top dog this year was going to be Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. And despite what happens at the Oscars in the weeks ahead, there is no doubt that Netflix and Scorsese delivered the goods. The movie is pretty much everything that has made Scorsese’s career legendary wrapped up in a single, 3 1/2 hour film. It’s almost feels like a finale in a way too, like this will be the last opportunity for him to make a movie like this ever, so he put everything he has into it. That seems especially true with the cast he assembled. Working once again with his longtime friend and collaborator Robert DeNiro after a long hiatus, the two are perfectly in tune once again. Scorsese even talked Joe Pesci out of retirement to be in this one last movie, and it’s a beautiful, different paced return to form for the legendary actor. We also finally get to see Al Pacino work with Scorsese for the first time, and he’s just as great as you’d expect. The movie almost feels like the third and concluding chapter of a trilogy, combined with Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995) even though their only linked by genre. Think of this as Scorsese’s Return of the King. It’s exquisitely crafted, brilliantly acted, often hilarious, occasionally shocking; it’s everything you want a Scorsese film to be. No matter what the purpose of making it was for, I applaud Netflix for making a movie like this happen. If anything, it’s the kind of movie that can elevate a studio to the next level, and given how much Netflix has already changed, that’s saying quite a bit.
And my pick for the best movie of 2019 is…
Directed by Taika Waititi
Crafting a satire around Nazi Germany is no easy task, as it opens you up to a lot of mine fields if you don’t hit the right tone. Even more so if you also include the horrors of the Holocaust in the mix. But, somehow New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi managed to find that balance, and deliver not just one of the year’s funniest comedies, but also one of the most uplifting stories about love and friendship triumphing over hate that I’ve ever seen. And he does it even while appearing in the movie as a comical version of Heir Hitler himself. One of the reasons why the movie works so well is because the characters within the movie are so wonderfully written and performed. Young newcomer Roman Griffin Davis gives a commanding performance as the idealistic yet naive Jojo, giving him equal weight whenever the movie gets silly or heavily dramatic. The same goes for the entire cast as well, including Scarlett Johanssson, Sam Rockwell, and Thomasin McKenzie. Even secondary performers like Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant shine. But what is especially remarkable about the movie is that it doesn’t shy away from the truly evil acts committed by the Nazi regime, and the film manages to balance the heavy stuff with the comical stuff without giving the audience tonal whiplash. It feels very much in the same vein as a Charlie Chaplin comedy like The Great Dictator, with maybe a little Mel Brooks and Monty Python thrown in. Taika really demonstrates how good of a filmmaker he is with this movie, especially when it comes to tackling such a sensitive subject. Not many people can balance savage, cartoonish satire with tearful human drama effectively, but he managed to pull it off. It’s the kind of comedy that we need right now; unafraid to label hatred for what it is and a passionate showcase for the healing power of love. I loved every minute of it.
So there you have my picks for the best movies of 2019, but like all my lists from year’s past, I also have my picks for the year’s worst. Sadly, this one was pretty easy to choose from, as 2019 had it’s fair share of bad movies as well. What follows are my bottom 5 movies of 2019.
5. CATS – So mind-boggling misguided in it’s execution that it almost redeems itself as a piece of camp entertainment. But this adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical never actually finds it’s footing, because you are constantly disturbed by the appearances of the actors in CGI fur making them look like felines despite their human physiques being retained. Despite some strong performances, this movie is as appealing as a hairball. For musical fans or the morbidly curious only. Don’t say that I didn’t warn you.
4. THE KITCHEN – The year’s most poorly executed drama, and one that sadly had some potential behind it. Centered around three mob wives played by Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elizabeth Moss who take over operation of their husbands businesses while they are jail, the movie could have been an interesting new take on this genre of film. Instead, it’s a sloppily edited piece that tries to cram in too much story and suffocates anything that could have given this movie any real bite. The three leads are so poorly defined as characters that you don’t care at all about their stories, and it’s a waste of the talents of these actresses; some of whom are really trying to grasp onto something here. This Goodfellas wannabe probably illustrated the most wasted potential of any movie this year.
3. MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL – There were quite a few attempts to relaunch long dormant franchises, most of which failed like Terminator: Dark Fate and Rambo: Last Blood. This one, however, was by far the laziest. The hope was that the strong chemistry between actors Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson would help lift this franchise back to it’s former glory, and move beyond the duo of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. But no, their onscreen chemistry couldn’t salvage this tired franchise, which just again resorts to the same tired tricks that ran stale years ago. If you want to see Hemsworth and Thompson at their best, just re-watch Thor: Ragnarok (2017) again. Otherwise, avoid Men in Black: International. Even a good match of actors can’t overcome a premise that has long lost it’s luster.
2. DARK PHOENIX – Fool us once, shame on you. Fool us twice, well shame on us. It was foolish to think that Fox would get the Dark Phoenix saga right the second time around in their X-Men franchise, especially after bungling it so badly with X-Men: The Last Stand (2016). But, somehow they not only failed us again, but they even managed to make it worse. This was far and away the worst film in Fox’s long running X-Men series, and sadly it is also the final note that it’s going to go out on. I’ve also never seen such a great cast in a movie feel so awkwardly directed either. The performances in this movie are just cringe-inducing bad, and these actors have shown to be much better in other things, so I don’t know what happened to make them so amateurish here. With Marvel now in charge of the characters again, we are going to see a full reboot that will make all of this non-canonical in the end. It’s a sad ending to a franchise that had some great moments with a solid cast. It’s too bad Dark Phoenix is as poor of a final note as it ended up being.
And the worst movie of 2019 is…
1. THE LION KING (2019) – It pains me to say that Disney managed to take one of their most beloved, flawless classics and turn it into the worst movie of the year. To be honest, Dark Phoenix is the worst made movie of the year, but The Lion King is the one that I hated the most because of what it represents. This is just copy and paste film-making at it’s very worst. I love what director Jon Favreau has done with most of his career, but this movie is a waste of his talent, and it tells me that he was just given a mandate by the studio to deliver the same exact film without any creative freedom. We are just given the same movie over again, only in “live action,” and devoid of any of the emotion that made the original animated film so memorable. The biggest problem is that all the characters are animated to look and move like real animals, and real animals don’t emote the same way that they can in cartoonish animation. So that’s why you have these awkwardly blank faces on these characters going through a variety of emotions, and it robs any personality out of the film. Couple this with the fact that it’s just the same exact script and you’ll only be constantly reminded how much better the original animated classic was. This is the worst example of the creatively bankrupt trend that Disney has been on with their movie remakes, and I worry that it’s going to lead them down the road of further lackluster film-making for an easy buck. They should be using their resources to take bigger chances, and broaden their body of work; not just regurgitate past successes towards diminishing returns.
So, there you have my look at the movie of 2019, including it’s best and worst. It was quite a year for movies, and it completed the decade on a fairly strong note. In the weeks ahead, I will be giving my overview of the best movies of the last ten years, but before I wrap up this year’s list, I do want to look ahead at what we’ll be seeing in the following year. With huge finales from the Marvel and Star Wars universes having played out in 2019, 2020 is going to be a bit quieter for the most part, though that’s not to say there won’t be some big films coming out this year. Marvel kicks off their Phase 4 with the long awaited Black Widow movie this summer, and then delivers us a whole new team of heroes with The Eternals this fall. Also this summer, DC will bring their biggest champion yet, Wonder Woman, back to the big screen with the highly anticipated sequel Wonder Woman 84. We also get Christopher Nolan’s new epic thriller Tenet this summer, which I’m sure will be a must see IMAX experience like all his other movies. We’re also going to see long in the making follow-ups to some classic franchises like Ghostbusters: Afterlife and Top Gun: Maverick. There will also be some fresh new animated films from Pixar (Onward and Soul) and Disney (Raya and the Last Dragon). And probably the most intriguing project of the year could be the new big screen adaptation of Dune from director Denis Villeneuve, featuring a huge all star cast. It’s a year that really seems to be defined by new beginnings just as much as 2019 was defined by epic finales. Here’s hoping that 2020 sets off the next decade right as far as cinema is concerned. It’s been fun sharing all these best and worst of the year picks with all of you, and I hope many of my picks were interesting ones. Here’s to the year ahead and continue having a fun time at the movies.