In 2019, the box-office behemoths of Avengers: Endgame, Captain Marvel and Spider-Man: Far From Home hit paydirt for Marvel, but brought disdain from director Martin Scorsese who denied their relevance as “real cinema.” And yet: the year’s best movies stand as living, breathing definitions of what film can do when creative energy is let off the leash. From old masters like Scorsese (The Irishman) to young firebrands like the Safdie brothers (Uncut Gems), the year fairly burst with energy. Netflix followed its success last year with Roma with two more artistic triumphs (The Irishman and Marriage Story). Two dynamite women directors, Greta Gerwig (Little Women) and Lulu Wang (The Farewell), served notice to the film industry’s old boys’ club. Quentin Tarantino took on Tinseltown itself with Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. South Korean powerhouse Bong Joon Ho reminded us that talent knows no borders with his masterpiece Parasite. And then there was a little movie called Joker. Here are 10 movies that did cinema proud.
Martin Scorsese, 77, and still America’s greatest living filmmaker, shook up the year by claiming Marvel movies aren’t cinema. “What’s not there is revelation, mystery, or genuine emotional danger,” claimed the director, who supplies all that and more in what is not just the best film of 2019 but also an incendiary, indelible summation of a landmark career. The film reunites Scorsese with his peerless acting muses Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci nearly 25 years after they made Casino. It also brings in a live-wire Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa, the Teamsters leader who De Niro’s hit man, Frank Sheeran, is ordered to kill. A digital de-aging process allows the actors to play younger as the film spans decades of American history. But it’s not violence that brings them down — it’s debilitating age. That searing note of poetic justice makes The Irishman unique among Scorsese’s Mob films, from Goodfellas to The Departed, and earns a place in the cinematic canon.
Quentin Tarantino’s mad love for Hollywood on the fringes permeates every frame of this richly detailed, ravishingly told fable. The time is 1969, and something sinister is creeping into Tinseltown. Who else but Tarantino would dare make a buddy comedy with the murderous Manson family lurking in the background? Leonardo DiCaprio works wonders as a boozing, fading star reduced to playing TV villains and leaning hard for support on his stunt-double buddy (Brad Pitt, heading for his first Oscar). And, yes, living next door is actress Sharon Tate, a personification of innocence as played by Margot Robbie. As is his habit, the virtuoso who had Hitler killed in Inglourious Basterds adjusts history to suit his own moral compass. To paraphrase a line from the script: He’s Quentin fucking Tarantino and don’t you forget it.
Give thanks to filmmaker Bong Joon Ho, the South Korean master whose game-changing Parasite seems to be curing America’s aversion to subtitles. As the financially struggling Kim family stealthily infiltrates the home of the wealthy Parks, first by securing posts as tutors and then by posing as servants. The film builds from a stingingly comic social satire about class into a horror show that indicts the parasitic nature of greed across all borders. Bong’s technique is blindingly brilliant — you watch the film marshal its forces in awe.
Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) are made for each other. But she wants to move to L.A. and he wants to stay in New York. Their eight-year-old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), occupies the scorched earth between them. Out of the million things that can lead to divorce, writer-director Noah Baumbach crafts his finest film yet, a series of scenes from a marriage that you can’t help taking personally. With Driver at his best and Johansson at hers, you’ll laugh and cry, sometimes at the same time.
It’s a thrill to watch writer-director Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), partner to Marriage Story‘s Noah Baumbach, tackle the prospect of holy wedlock as an unholy burden. It sure is for Jo (Saoirse Ronan), the firebrand and fledgling author among the four March sisters, who occupy the plot of Louisa May Alcott’s 1860s novel. Sisters Meg (Emma Watson) and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) bear witness as Amy (the marvelous Florence Pugh) challenges Jo at her own game. Of the eight film versions of Little Women to date, this is by far the best, and the filmmaker brings Alcott’s own life and rebellious streak into the mix. The result creates an exhilarating gift of a movie that honors female independence at any age.
A potent and prodigious achievement on every level. Director Sam Mendes and camera visionary Roger Deakins — both their talents shining on their highest beams — have set out to tell a World War I story that propels itself forward in one continuous take (or at least it looks like that way.) Two young British soldiers — Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) — take on the impossible mission of crossing enemy lines to deliver a message that the Germans are setting a trap that could cost the British army more than 1,600 lives. There’s nothing gimmicky about the approach of Mendes and Deakins, who perform technical miracles that are surpassed only by their deep emotional investment (MacKay’s turn is a heartbreaker) in a high-tension war film that succeeds in pinning you to your seat.
New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi is a wild man (see What We Do in the Shadows, Thor: Ragnarok), who doesn’t scare off easily. And the polarizing Jojo Rabbit is his biggest swing yet, a comedy tangled in tragedy, in which Waititi plays Hitler for laughs. What happens when 10-year-old Jojo (a terrific Roman Griffin Davis) tries to reconcile his membership in the Hitler Youth with the Jewish girl (Leave No Trace‘s Thomasin McKenzie) his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding at home? Waititi trusts that his young hero’s journey to empathy will also be ours. And in a world still consumed by divisiveness and hate crimes, let’s hope he’s right.
The Safdie brothers, Josh and Benny, make movies in a fever — and their teaming with Adam Sandler, as a New York jeweler risking his life on a rare opal and an all-or-nothing hoops bet, is a match made in red-hot heaven. When he’s not playing the doofus, Sandler can act his ass off. And his all-in performance for the Safdies stands as Exhibit A.
A tough core of intelligence and wit marks writer-director Lulu Wang’s tale of cultural conflict. Awkwafina brings a touching gravity to Billi, a New York writer who returns home to China to see her dying grandmother Nai Nai (the sublime Shuzhen Zhao). Chinese custom says the cancer diagnosis should be withheld from Nai Nai. Billi pushes for truth. That’s the debate at the center of a film whose grace notes are only strengthened by its grit.
In a performance that will be dissected for years, Joaquin Phoenix astounds as Arthur Fleck, a street clown and wanna-be-stand-up who morphs into a brutal avenger. Creating their own stand-alone Joker origin story, Phoenix and director Todd Phillips hit a mother lode of controversy about the violence in a film that became the most successful R-rated movie in history. For inspiration, the filmmakers looked to Martin Scorsese, the legend at the top of this list. And in Fleck, you can see tormented traces of Travis Bickle in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy. The Irishman and Joker bookend a year in which the best movies showed characters struggling to put on a happy face. Talk about art imitating life.