My favorites of 2019, you ask? Oh, gosh, I have so many: the second season of Amazon Prime's Fleabag, with the divine Phoebe Waller-Bridge and the imploding of the fourth wall and Andrew Scott shaking things up as the definitive Hot Priest; HBO's Chernobyl, with its docudrama delivered as the most enraging of fright films; Netflix's John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch, with its insanely catchy songs and simultaneous salute to and parody of cherished children's programs … .
Oh, wait – we're talking movie favorites? Cool. 'Cause I can talk about those, too.
And I'm almost more stoked than ever to do so this year. Because while I'm always delighted to spread the word on the movies that affected me most (or, further down in the article, least), it seems as though an especially plentiful 12 months have just concluded, with the top five choices on my annual list of 10 Favorites already feeling like classics-in-waiting, if not instant classics. Perhaps none more so than the best offering yet from one of our absolute best … .
1) Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. Does anyone wanna buy a Blu-ray player? 'Cause I've got one you can get for cheap … if you don't mind that Quentin Tarantino's latest, after three weeks of incessant replays, has pretty much soldered itself to the interior. I kid: I'm keeping the device and the fully intact movie. But wow have I found it difficult to not watch Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood over and over and over; it almost seems ridiculous that Tarantino's most confident, controlled, mature, and impassioned work to date should also be so overwhelmingly sweet. Okay, fine, the killing of the three Manson cult members is anything but sweet, even if they do deserve it for what they inevitably did – and, in the writer/director's imagining, no longer do – to Sharon Tate, her housemate, and their two guests. But there's a glowing tenderness in this ninth Tarantino that we've never seen before and that suffuses nearly every sequence: Leonardo DiCaprio's former Western star Rick Dalton sobbing and dropping his head on his buddy's shoulder; Brad Pitt's devoted stuntman Cliff Booth embracing his beloved pit bull on the floor of his ramshackle mobile home; Margot Robbie's Tate unable to suppress her grins when reveling in the gentle laughs of an audience that doesn't know she's there.
And while the leads' individual narratives are beguiling enough – Dalton does a TV guest spot, Booth visits Spahn Ranch, Tate goes to the movies – Tarantino's filmmaking is so hypnotically assured that the film is transfixing even when nothing of particular significance is happening. I would gratefully watch DiCaprio (delivering my all-time-favorite DiCaprio performance) running lines while floating in his Hollywood Hills pool, and Pitt speeding through Los Angeles streets fastidiously designed to resemble 1969, and Robbie shimmying to Paul Revere & the Raiders for hours, if not days, on end. And I practically have. Tarantino has publicly declared his intention to retire from filmmaking after his tenth movie, and this one is his ninth. I hope he's lying. But even if he chose to close shop early on this exquisite grace note, we'd be hard-pressed to bitch. Worth re-viewing … for the black-and-white interview complete with humblebrags and forced geniality (“What, carrying his load? Yeah, that's about right”); for the cheeky interruptions of narrator Kurt Russell; for Julia Butters' eight-year-old prodigy schooling DiCaprio in the ways of man-splaining and unwanted nicknames; for Margaret Qualley's hippie ferocity and hairy armpits; for Damian Lewis, as Steve McQueen, concisely explaining the Sharon/Roman/Jay triangle; for the ravaged comic intensity of Dakota Fanning and the grouchy sadness of Bruce Dern; for Pitt taking off his shirt, a sight that should be eligible for the visual-effects Oscar; for Pitt throwing Mike Moh's Bruce Lee into a parked car; for Pitt doing anything; and for the beautiful hopefulness and calm of the climactic shot, proving that the only way to end a Once Upon a Time is with an invented, yet blessedly real-for-the-moment, Happily Ever After.
2) Parasite. Back in November, leveled by attending eight films in three days, I named Bong Joon Ho's genre-demolishing sensation my second-favorite movie of the weekend behind the Nazi satire Jojo Rabbit. I still love Jojo (see below), but Jesus – what was I thinking?! Another Parasite viewing over the Christmas break convinced me that not only was this phenomenally clever home-invasion tale the superior entertainment, but just about as flawless an entertainment as you could want: so funny in its early scenes, so nerve-racking in its midsection, and so heart-rendingly tragic at the close that Bong's precisely composed, dynamically acted offering leaves you both wiped out and electrified. Bong has made several outstanding movies over the past decade-plus, but none of them suggested that the South Korean writer/director (working here with co-scribe Jin Won Han) could echo Stanley Kubrick and Michael Haneke and top them in the same breath, or that he could elicit performances as varied, yet as unified in their purpose, as the ones he gets from Jang Hye-jin, Choi Woo-sik, Park So-dam, Lee Sun-kyun, Jo Yeo-jeong, Lee Jung-eun, Park Myung-hoon, and the unimpeachable Song Kang-ho. If its inevitable Oscar-nomination success leads to the area re-release I'm expecting it will, plan on hearing a lot of excited “Have you seen Parasite?!” gushing from friends for days and weeks afterward. If you answer no, you must immediately rectify that. Worth re-viewing … for the Kim siblings' bouncy sing-song designed to commit a lie to memory; for the cigarette inhaled atop the exploding toilet; and for the image of a human head slowly rising from the blackness and ensuring that a small child will never again sleep peacefully. I'm reasonably sure Bong lifted that shot directly from my own nightmares.
3) The Irishman. Let's just get this out of the way: After four viewings of director Martin Scorsese's elegiac masterpiece – that's 14 hours of mobster entertainment! – I find Robert De Niro's titular portrayal even less interesting than I did on a first look. It's not that the much-discussed de-aging effects are distracting, though they kind of are; it's that De Niro's entire soul appears de-aged, and consequently wiped of experience. He's solid enough, and quite good when playing the octogenarian Frank Sheeran, but De Niro's almost solely reactive performance doesn't have any levels, any hints of spontaneity; imagine this hitman role instead played by co-star Harvey Keitel, or GoodFellas lead Ray Liotta, and you'll get a sense of what we're missing. That being said, I don't care for Jack Nicholson in Scorsese's The Departed, either, and that's still one of my all-time favorite Marty flicks. And this one, happily, is, too – a stupendously expansive, trenchant, brutal, and frequently hilarious behemoth that earns every second of its considerable running length. De Niro (and Al Pacino's too-recognizable braying) aside, a trio of additional viewings have only made me love The Irishman more, from its period-detail perfection to Jimmy Hoffa's eerily drab, business-as-usual execution to the haunting final image of a wheelchair-bound man requesting the door be left open even though Christmas visitors will surely not be forthcoming. And what can be said about the flabbergasting genius of Joe Pesci? How about, “Come back soon, Joe!” Worth re-viewing … for the bread dipped in grape juice; for Anna Paquin quietly annihilating De Niro's world with seven carefully chosen words; and, over 210 glorious minutes, for the invigorating snap of screenwriter Steven Zaillian's dialogue. (“You know who owns the other part?” “No.” “I do.” “Who?” “No. I do. I own the other part.” Priceless.)
4) Us. Writer/director Jordan Peele's adventurous, endlessly watchable freakout hit cineplexes nearly 10 months ago and landed on home video nearly seven months ago. Can I finally talk about the twist, please? (If you'd rather I didn't, kindly skip ahead to the next write-up.) Lots of movies, especially those with surprise endings, are recommended with the imperative “You've got to see it twice!” But while that's true of Us, as well, there's honestly no way to properly appreciate, or even comprehend, Lupita Nyong'o's extraordinary slow-burn performance as Adelaide without repeat exposure. In particular, before Red and her fellow doppelgängers show up, watch Nyong'o's facial expressions and body language as Adelaide almost screws up her snapping rhythm on “I Got 5 on It”; as she remembers herself as a child ballerina; as she registers a homeless man's corpse en route to Santa Cruz: This is a woman desperately afraid of being found out, and who masks her escalating panic with approximations of normalcy. Nyong'o's Red, with her strangled croak of a voice and cockroach quickness, is a frightening creation. It's Adelaide, though – the actual Red – who's the truly terrifying monster, and in a film teeming with genre pleasures and improvements courtesy of Peele and double-cast magnificence courtesy of Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, and the exceptional youths Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex, Nyong'o is the ultimate reason I've watched this bold, creepy, witty, unsettling film more than a dozen times. Because Get Out is just about perfect, it was inevitable that many (myself included) would initially underrate Peele's latest. Time, I think, will eventually prove that they (and I) shouldn't have. Worth re-viewing … for Alexa's hilarious misunderstanding of the command “Call the police”; for the climax's insidiously edited, iconically scored dance of death; and for perhaps the wittiest Home Alone joke ever told on film.
5) Little Women. I know this is, like, the kajillionth adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic, and that, for many, the definitive Little Women will forever be the one with Katharine Hepburn, or June Allyson, or Winona Ryder, or whomever else. But why is it that writer/director Greta Gerwig's thrillingly realized version seems to be the one recent movie I'm having the toughest time convincing friends to see? If they're worried about the familiarity, they shouldn't be; Gerwig cleverly and meaningfully plays with Alcott's chronology, intertwining the March sisters' youthful and adult lives in ways that add new-found humor, heartbreak, and gravitas to scenes that many of us know, or think we know, by heart. If they're concerned that memories of previous performers will overshadow the current cast's work, that feels like a non-starter, given that Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, and the wondrous Florence Pugh (as fine and funny an Amy as we'll likely ever get) all find delicate, distinct balances between 1800s accuracy and 2019 relevance, as do such top-form character actors as Laura Dern, Chris Cooper, and Meryl Streep. And if they're expecting the film to be boring – a sentiment I've heard several times now – it so isn't, as nearly every scene percolates with the energy, anxiety, and delight that the Marches are frequently reminded to repress, even if they're temperamentally unable to. We'll no doubt get more Little Women down the line. They'll be hard-pressed to top this one. Worth re-viewing … for the giddy audaciousness of written correspondence verbalized straight to the camera; for Amy making a cast of her “little foot” and then hobbling around, stuck; and for the national treasure that is Tracy Letts. It sometimes feels like the Ford v Ferrari scene-stealer is in every movie these days. I wish.
6) Knives Out. Part of me, a really selfish part, wants a sequel to Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, just to see what futures Tarantino envisions for heroic protectors Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth, beaming mother Sharon Tate, and happy family man Roman Polanski. Part of me wants a continuation to Us, as I'm curious about whether Adelaide/Red and clan ever found a truly safe place, and whether that line of red jumpsuits actually did span the nation from sea to shining sea. But I don't want so much as need a follow-up to writer/director Rian Johnson's fiendishly entertaining mystery-comedy, as I'm not at all ready to bid adieu to Daniel Craig's drawling detective Benoit Blanc, and more than ready for Johnson to assemble another top-tier cast for another wildly complex, hugely satisfying cinematic puzzle. Although Christopher Plummer's character croaked, there was no end of screen life provided by the uniformly sensational Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, LaKeith Stanfield, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon, and Don Johnson, and the décor of the Thrombey estate – from the hidden doorways to the titular knives – should be immediately eligible for a collective SAG card. I saw this one over the Thanksgiving break. In truth, it felt more like Christmas, because Knives Out really is the gift that keeps on giving. Worth re-viewing … for Blanc's hilariously blunt yet astute appraisals of his many suspects, especially when referring to Jaeden Mitchell's dead-eyed teen as “that Nazi child masturbatin' in the bathroom”; for the irrepressible geeking out of Noah Segan's Trooper Wagner, who's enjoying Blanc's Southern-fried Hercule Poirot routine even more than we are; and for the sharpest visual punchline of the year, one made all the wittier for being spelled out on a coffee cup.
7) Marriage Story. Even though I've publicly raved about how wonderfully convenient it's been, thanks to streaming, to view releases such as The Irishman, Dolemite Is My Name, and The Aeronauts from the comfort of my living room, I'll admit there is a downside: I've now whiled away wa-a-ay too much time re-watching adored scenes from this stunningly observed dramedy by writer/director Noah Baumbach. Not all of the film gets this kind of personal treatment; I stick to my initial opinion that too many showy sequences come off as forced, and as lovely, sad, and beautifully scored (by Randy Newman) as it is, I have no problem skipping through the trick-or-treating segment entirely. But I could spend hours watching Scarlett Johansson prep mom Julie Hagerty and sis Merritt Wever (a comic revelation) for the serving of divorce papers, and Alan Alda confounding Adam Driver about whether or not they plan to go to court, and Laura Dern kicking off her heels and curling up on the sofa in order to prove to her prospective client that she really, really cares. (On a couple of occasions now, I've only watched Dern's scenes, which, when viewed in sequence, turn the movie into a brilliant short comedy about the most nightmarish attorney of your dreams – or the dreamiest attorney of your nightmares.) Marriage Story has significant flaws, but there aren't many of them, and the parts I love heftily outweigh the ones I don't. Worth re-viewing … for Ray Liotta detailing the middle ground between reasonable and crazy; for the visit from Martha Kelly's evaluator and the pocket-knife trick, both of which go hideously wrong; and for Johansson gently tapping Driver's foot so she can tie his shoe, sending him on his way no happier, but maybe a little safer.
8) Jojo Rabbit. Good God, did this one sound excruciating: a deliberately anachronistic, sentimental slapstick set in Nazi Germany, with our titular hero an apple-cheeked 10-year-old whose imaginary best friend talks like a millennial grade-schooler and looks like an adult Adolf Hitler. Even with the inventive New Zealander Taika Waititi writing and directing, how on earth was this not going to be a staggering, potentially grossly offensive mess? I don't know. But then again, I don't know how most magicians pull off their tricks. And Jojo Rabbit is less a trick than a miracle – the most riotous release of 2019 on a minute-by-minute basis, yet a work that also boasts the ability, on more than a few occasions, to turn you into a weepy wreck. Waititi was most certainly aided by the sensational casting of newcomer Roman Griffin Davis, a confident dramatic presence and ace comedian who more than holds his own against his more seasoned co-stars, be they the radiantly real and moving Scarlett Johansson and Thomas McKenzie, or the fearlessly funny Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, and, as faux-Hitler, Waititi himself. But while the movie is based on a Christine Leunens novel that I haven't read (and now want to), the genius of the fluid, shifting tones feels like pure Taika, who almost seems to be daring us to laugh in the face of events that, as his impassioned filmmaking makes clear, are most assuredly not laughing matters. That we do laugh, and cry, and grip our armrests with legitimate tension, is testament to Waititi's brilliance. Worth re-viewing … for every moment with Archie Yates (also making his screen debut) as the friendliest and most adorable of wannabe Nazis; for Rockwell's expression of resigned acceptance as the Allies take over; and for Johansson's shoes. Oh, the shoes.
9) Pain & Glory. This past November 9, I caught a morning screening of Parasite at the Davenport cineplex, and after it ended, with my mind still reeling, I trekked to Iowa City to catch this autobiographical drama by legendary Spanish writer/director Pedro Almodóvar. I'd call it the greatest foreign-language double-feature I'd ever seen if I wasn't tempted to call it the greatest double-feature I'd ever seen period. Antonio Banderas has deservedly received a lion's share of Pain & Glory's praise, delivering a performance as a physically impaired, retirement-bound filmmaker that's more honest, lived-in, and subtly devastating than anything the performer has done in decades, and maybe ever. Yet with none of his choices emerging as show-offy, a minute doesn't pass in which you're not reminded that this is Almodóvar's triumph all the way; this nakedly confessional tale, with Penélope Cruz as incandescent as she's ever been, is as thrillingly strange as Talk to Her, as warm and earthy as Volver, and, at times, as madcap as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. From the color-drenched José Luis Alcain cinematography to the alternately playful and melancholic Alberto Iglesias score, I can't wait to see it, hear it, and read it all again. Worth re-viewing … for Banderas and estranged friend Asier Etxeandia attempting to get through a public Q&A via Skype while high as kites; for the aching soul kiss between Banderas and Leonardo Sbaraglia, whose lust and deep love is made all the more poignant by both men being in late-middle-age; and for the very last shot – a sublimely gorgeous image suggesting how life can be turned into art, and how art, at least of this magnitude, can occasionally feel even more real than life.
10) Rocketman. Granted, I was predisposed to enjoy this one, considering that director Dexter Fletcher's tune-filled bio-pic was going to be flooded with Elton John songs and was hopefully going to give Taron Egerton the big-screen showcase his easy charisma and charm have long deserved but haven't received beyond Eddie the Eagle. (Yes, I saw the Kingsman movies and 2018's Robin Hood. Your point?) But what I got was even better than what I'd anticipated – the most imaginative, exuberant, “Let's throw it at the wall and see if it sticks” musical since Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! almost 20 years ago. For all of its creativity, Rocketman is still too conventional in its narrative approach, and anyone who's seen even one screen biography on a show-biz legend will have no trouble plotting Elton's flashback course from hopeful upstart to drug-addled diva to at-peace icon. I don't care. The musical set pieces are so exhilarating and/or sincere that I've barely been able to wipe the grin off my face during the many, many times I've now viewed them, and Egerton is simply extraordinary, not least for looking and sounding so comfortable, so right, in costumes suggesting entire Mardi Gras parades shrink-wrapped into gloriously gaudy outerwear. Hello, yellow brick road! Worth re-viewing … for Kit Connor's adolescent Elton morphing into Egerton's through the joyous frenzy of “Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting”; for Elton facing a younger, less troubled version of himself at the bottom of a swimming pool; and for Jamie Bell's heartbreaking expression of unparalleled wonder and happiness as he stares at his best friend creating the “Your Song” melody on the fly, the “your” in its title belonging first to Elton, and then to Bernie Taupin, and then, finally, to all of us.
And a Few Other Lists ...
10 Runners-Up to the 10 Favorites: Ad Astra; Bombshell; Booksmart; Dolemite Is My Name; Joker; The Lighthouse; Long Shot; Midsommar; Missing Link; The Peanut Butter Falcon.
10 Runners-Up to Those Runners-Up: 21 Bridges; Cold Pursuit; Dark Waters; The Farewell; Gloria Bell; Good Boys; Luce; Motherless Brooklyn; Shazam!; Waves.
10 Others That Are Totally Worth Watching: The Aeronatuts; Brian Banks; Brittany Runs a Marathon; Ford v Ferrari; I Lost My Body; Klaus; Late Night; The Mustang; Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark; Western Stars.
10 I Could Completely Imagine Watching Again on an Airplane or Something: After the Wedding; Alita: Battle Angel; Captive State; The Current War: Director's Cut; The King; Official Secrets; The Prodigy; The Sun Is Also a Star; Velvet Buzzsaw; Where'd You Go, Bernadette.
10 That'll Likely be Okay Depending on Your Mood: The Art of Self-Defense; The Best of Enemies; Bennett's War; Hotel Mumbai; The Intruder; Isn't It Romantic; Midway; Overcomer; Richard Jewell; Tyler Perry's A Madea Family Funeral.
10 Strong-to-Really-Strong Documentaries: Amazing Grace; American Factory; Apollo 11; Ask Dr. Ruth; The Biggest Little Farm; Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened; Knock Down the House; One Child Nation; Roll Red Roll; Tell Me Who I Am.
10 Good-to-Very-Good Sequels, Prequels, Remakes, or Reboots: Avengers: Endgame; Doctor Sleep; Downton Abbey; Frozen II; Glass; How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World; The Hustle; John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum; Jumanji: The Next Level; Toy Story 4.
10 Perfectly Middling Sequels, Prequels, Remakes, or Reboots: Annabelle Comes Home; Child's Play; The Curse of La Llorona; Happy Death Day 2 U; Hellboy; The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part; Spider-Man: Far from Home; Terminator: Dark Fate; What Men Want; Zombieland: Double Tap.
10 Poor-to-Worse Sequels, Prequels, Remakes, or Reboots: 47 Meters Down: Uncaged; The Addams Family; Black Christmas; Dark Phoenix; Godzilla: Rise of The Monsters; It: Chapter Two; Maleficent: Mistress of Evil; Miss Bala; The Secret Life of Pets 2; Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
10 Decent-or-Better Family Flicks (at Least If You Have Young Children Joining You): Abominable; The Angry Birds Movie 2; Dumbo; The Kid Who Would Be King; Penguins; Playmobil: The Movie; Pokémon Detective Pikachu; Spies in Disguise; UglyDolls; Wonder Park.
10 I Feel Vaguely Guilty About Liking As Much as I Did: Black & Blue; Brightburn; Climax; Crawl; Dora & the Lost City of Gold; Escape Room; Five Feet Apart; Jexi; Little; Stuber.
10 I Feel Vaguely Guilty About Not Liking as Much as I Maybe Should Have: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood; Fighting with My Family; Greta; Harriet; High Life; Honey Boy; Judy; The Report; The Two Popes; Yesterday.
10 I Hoped to Like but Feel Zero Guilt About Not Liking: Blinded by the Light; Countdown; The Dead Don't Die; Gemini Man; The Goldfinch; Hustlers; The Laundromat; Ma; Ready or Not; Under the Silver Lake.
10 That, Despite Their Performers, Are Just-Plain-Not Good: The Art of Racing in the Rain; Captain Marvel; Don't Let Go; The Good Liar; The Kid; The Kitchen; POMS; Teen Spirit; Tolkien; The Upside.
One in an Indescribable Class by Itself: Cats.
10 That Could Easily Have Been My 10 Least-Favorites of the Year: After; Breakthrough; A Dog's Journey; A Dog's Way Home; Last Christmas; The Least of These: The Graham Staines Story; Pet Sematary; Queen & Slim; Replicas; Serenity.
But My Actual Least-Favorites:
10) The Lion King. “Ca-a-an you he-e-ear my ya-a-awns toni-i-ight … ?”
9) Uncut Gems. Adam Sandler nattering, whining, screeching, sobbing, and bleeding for two-plus hours. And he's the movie's least annoying element.
8) Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw. Wake me when this series gets around to Calvin & Hobb(e)s.
7) Aladdin. “A who-o-ole ne-e-ew wo-o-o-o-orse … !” Seriously, Disney: Keep the remakes coming. I can do this all day.
6) Men in Black: International. As Will Smith would've said back when this series meant anything: “Damn.”
5) Angel Has Fallen. The least offensive of Gerard Butler's Fallen trilogy. That is all.
4) Charlie's Angels. Weren't you paying attention to Gerard Butler? Angels have fallen, damn it! What were you thinking in making this?!
3) Rambo: Last Blood. “Last”? You promise? Can we get that in writing, Sly?
2) The Beach Bum. A 95-minute vacation in which every second is spent with an obscenely self-satisfied Matthew McConaughey and he's the only one allowed to get high.
1) Playing with Fire. “No”s before hose.