By Ken Chanko
With everything else going on in the country right now it’s gratifying to report that 2019 turned out to be an unimpeachably good year for discerning movie-goers.
Before getting to this year’s remarkably robust ten-best list, it must be noted that 2019 saw the full impact of Netflix, for better and for worse. Quality mid-range films are getting squeezed between a rock — Hollywood’s reliance on Marvel-style formulaic franchise fare — and a hard place — the popularity of Netflix, which keeps folks increasingly on their sofas, in turn making studio execs even less willing to green-light more box-office risky (i.e., non-sequel superhero) films in the first place.
Then there was the dispute between the nation’s movie theater chains and officials at Netflix over Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” the year’s best film. On the one hand, the movie’s shortened window in theaters before Netflix streamed it bodes ill for those still wanting to see worthy films get vigorous distribution at their local theaters; on the other hand, Netflix, as opposed to studios like Paramount or Universal, was the only “distributor” willing to pony-up the $150 million Scorsese needed to make his classic mob epic in the first place.
So, there you have it. And here are my best films of the year:
- “The Irishman.” Scorsese’s at once sweeping and intimate elegy closes the book on the American gangster genre. What’s most remarkable about this triumphant, often somber three-and-a-half magnum mob opus, which spans a half-century, is the way it weaves convulsive historical events (including the assassination of JFK) into a poignant, even tragic, tale of the costs to one’s soul of blind loyalty to the malignantly powerful. A masterwork of and for our times.
- “Parasite.” A social satire set in Seoul, South Korea, about wealth inequality, this Bong Joon Ho marvel is equal parts hilarious, caustic and haunting as it follows the enterprising machinations of a poor family’s infiltration of a rich family’s home. I’ve seen it twice and I’m still trying to figure out how Bong (“Snowpiercer,” “The Host”) pulled it off. Bravo! (In Korean, with English subtitles.)
- “Pain and Glory.” Intimations of mortality come calling in Pedro Almodovar’s autobiographical instant classic about a famous aging Spanish filmmaker wrestling with a protracted creative dry spell, along with a series of medical maladies. It’s Almodovar’s less surreal, more naturalistic “8-1/2,” with Antonio Banderas terrifically understated as the stymied filmmaker. (In Spanish, with English subtitles.)
- “The Cave.” This searing documentary from director Feras Fayyad follows a female doctor, Amani Ballour, on her rounds in an underground Syrian hospital that’s subjected to near-constant bombings and airstrikes. It’s relentlessly harrowing, yes, but the matter-of-fact courage we witness from Dr. Ballour and her colleagues is breathtaking; as long as these doctors continue helping those in need, glimmers of hope remain. (In Arabic, with English subtitles.)
- “Little Women.” Greta Gerwig’s all grown up, gorgeous, whip-smart, non-linear updating of the 150-year-old Alcott classic, with new prominence given over to Jo, the most progressive of the March sisters. Gerwig adroitly adds contemporary touches to this Civil War era romantic drama and it coalesces into a winning, intoxicating entertainment.
- “Birds of Passage.” Forget El Chapo, “Narcos,” et al. Set over two decades starting in the 1960s, this compelling drama from the filmmaking team of Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra chronicles the ravages of the drug war from the unique perspective of an indigenous Colombian family. (In Wayuu and Spanish, with English subtitles.)
- “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” Quentin Tarantino’s best film since “Jackie Brown,” this ingenious alternative-history-as-fairy-tale is set in the late-’60s and plays like an affably nostalgic buddy-buddy comedy until the specter of the Manson family darkens the mood.
- “American Factory.” This exemplary documentary from Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert explores the fall-out for the workers caught up in the seismic changes visited upon an endangered GM auto plant in Ohio when it was purchased in 2008 by a Chinese billionaire.
- “Marriage Story.” This domestic seriocomic drama spares no one, which isn’t a surprise coming from the likes of writer-director Noah Baumbach (“The Meyerowitz Stories,” “The Squid and the Whale”). It charts the course of an increasingly acrimonious divorce, with two pitch-perfect central performances by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson.
- (tie) “Dark Waters” and “The Report.” Two grindingly compelling true-story accounts of what it takes for individuals to expose wrong-doing when going up against big corporations — DuPont in Todd Haynes’ “Dark Waters” — and secretive federal government agencies — the CIA in Scott Z. Burns’ “The Report.”
Honorable Mention: “An Elephant Sitting Still,” “One Child Nation,” “The Nightingale,” “Varda By Agnés,” “Waves,” “Peterloo,” “Us,” “By the Grace of God,” “Clemency,” and “The Souvenir.”
And don’t neglect these forty-five, listed in order from quite good to worth watching: “Uncut Gems,” “High Flying Bird,” “Midnight Family,” “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” “Honeyland,” “Ash Is Purest White,” “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” “The Laundromat,” “Harriet,” “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” “Synonyms,” “Tigers Are Not Afraid,” “Les Misérables,” “Atlantics,” “The Great Hack,” “Midsommar,” “Rolling Thunder Review: A Bob Dylan Story,” “Transit,” “The Farewell,” “Western Stars,” “The Lighthouse,” and “Where’s My Roy Cohn?”
Also: “Gloria Bell,” “Share,” “For Sama,” “I Lost My Body,” “Knock Down the House,” “The Burial of Kojo,” “Her Smell,” “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” “Give Me Liberty,” “The Chambermaid,” “A Tuba To Cuba,” “The Mustang,” “Dolemite Is My Name,” “The Two Popes,” “Seberg,” “Richard Jewell,” “Frankie,” “Everybody Knows,” “Monos,” “Ford v Ferrari,” “Queen & Slim,” and “Knives Out.”
Male — Antonio Banderas in “Pain and Glory” and “The Laundromat,” Adam Driver in “Marriage Story” and “The Report” (and “The Dead Don’t Die”), Robert De Niro in “The Irishman” (and “Joker”), Adam Sandler in “Uncut Gems,” Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Eddie Murphy in “Dolemite Is My Name,” Paul Walter Hauser in “Richard Jewell,” Tom Hanks in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” Joaquin Phoenix in “Joker,” and George MacKay in “1917.”
Female — Alfre Woodard in “Clemency,” Aisling Franciosi in “The Nightingale,” Cynthia Erivo in “Harriet,” Julianne Moore in “Gloria Bell,” Lupita Nyong’o in “Us,” Isabelle Huppert in “Frankie,” Honor Swinton Byrne in “The Souvenir,” Scarlett Johansson in “Marriage Story” (and “Jojo Rabbit”), Elizabeth Moss in “Her Smell” and “Us,” Kristin Stewart in “Seberg,” Awkwafina in “The Farewell,” and Renee Zellweger in “Judy.”
The four best ensemble cast performances: “Parasite,” “Little Women,” “Waves” and “By the Grace of God.”
Happy 2020 movie-going to all!