2019 was an interesting year…the last of a decade no one will likely have great fondness for (movie-wise or otherwise), the year’s movies trended towards overlong opuses from master directors and largely forgettable blockbusters we haven’t seen in this volume since the mid-90s. With Disney snapping up Fox (which made my pick for the year’s best film) and AT&T now outright owning Warner Brothers (arguably the most quality-driven studio, and inarguably the most adult focused), what will the future of movies look like? Whew, good question, and I’ll refrain from answering since I’d like to be remain optimistic until absolutely convinced otherwise.
What is clear is that we need an indie-film revival as badly as the 90’s did after the bloated, blockbuster-soaked 80’s nearly killed film creativity. In that decade, we saw an explosion of inventive, genre-breaking indie films and unprecedented emergence of new talent (in my opinion, Tarantino, Soderbergh, Spike Jonze, Wes Anderson, and Paul Thomas Anderson will go down as some of history’s greatest directors). I’d love to see something like that happen for the 2020’s…actually, I need something like that to happen for the next decade, which will hopefully be a rebuke of the franchise-driven 2010’s.
The Worst Movie of 2019: “American Son”…I always try to pick something a little unexpected for the “worst” movie of the year, as I’m not just picking on something borderline inept but also something that is offensive.
“American Son” is Hollywood’s latest example of torturing interracial couples and showing complete disdain for them. In it, a recently-estranged black woman (played by a Razzie-worthy Kerry Washington as if she had never taken an acting class before) and white man married couple are in a police station waiting on news of what happened to their son. The “twist” ending is all too predictable, as “Son” wants to string together as many hot-button topics as it can and also maximize the suffering of its main couple–who commit the great sin of being interracially married in 2019. [Worth noting that neither the white writer nor black director are in interracial marriages.]
Not only is the single-set movie boringly filmed, but there’s a way that people in plays talk to each other (you know, like no one you’ve ever met in real life) that sounds particularly phony on film. Anyone who has ever had a conversation with another person might wonder “WHY is this couple having a full-blown, collegiate level discussion of race and resentment in the middle of a police station while their son is missing?” or “Is this 90-minute dialogue something that would ever take place in the real world under these circumstances?” No, no it isn’t…
Runner-Up: “The Perfection”…Which is not to say that “Perfection” didn’t try its damnedest to upstage “American” in terms of offensiveness. What starts out as a genuinely interesting, gender-flipped version of “Othello” soon devolves into “topical,” forced “Me Too” madness, and in the process blows an opportunity to be one of the few films to explore white female entitlement and jealousy towards minorities. By taking the extremely-lame view that Alison Williams’s character is helping the black musical prodigy she tricks into cutting off her own arm–“Perfection” gives cover to any racist who thinks they’re secretly “helping” black people by robbing them of opportunities.
166. “The Intruder” F …Yet another extremely tired villainy of interracial couples. This time, a two-for, as not only does Dennis Quaid’s title villain want to kill Michael Ealy and steal (and/or rape) his wife Megan Good, but Good’s sister is married to a white guy who gets murdered (naturally) before the film is over.
165. “Miss Bala” F …Was anyone alive wanting the toothless CW remake version of Gerardo Naranjo’s excellent “Miss Bala?” Do yourself a favor and watch the fantastic 2011 film instead.
164. “Madea’s Family Funeral” D- …A haphazard plot only briefly comes to life with crude sex jokes. But if people want to see a dated-hero riff on modern topics, I’d go with “Shaft” instead.
163. “The Kitchen” D …Another Godawful portrayal of interracial couples. In this one, Tiffany Haddish marries a white guy and then gets him incarcerated, humiliates him, takes his mob syndicate, kills his mother, and eventually kills him. The only thing keeping this from an F is a solid performance from Elizabeth Moss.
162. “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” D …Utterly ridiculous but not in a fun way. This film is so self-serious and convoluted, you may get wrinkles trying to figure out what’s going on, and–of course–it’s not worth the effort.
161. “Hobbs and Shaw” D …I know I’m alone, but it’s a comfortable place to be when hating on a movie this obviously bad, yet rubber-stamped by too many critics and audiences.
160. “The Silence” D+ …It’s bad enough Netflix sort-of ripped off “A Quiet Place” with “Birdbox,” but this thing isn’t even pretending not to rip off “Place.” It also has borrowed elements from “The Birds,” “Alien,” Stephen King stories like “The Mist,” and even “Birdbox” itself. That Stanley Tucci got through this with a straight face shows just what a professional he is.
159. “Men in Black International” D+ …A movie that has no reason to exist, a popular theme for this year’s blockbusters. The plot is such a mess you can tell there were many screenwriters without even looking it up.
158. “Happy Death Day 2U” D+ …A sequel that has no reason to exist.
157. “The Hustle” D+ …Anne Hathaway gives a truly joyless performance in a remake that has no reason to exist. Rebel Wilson fans can find her in better movies throughout the year.
156. “After” D+ …A movie about danger and forbidden love that is actually mild to the point of coma-inducing. While watching it, you might wonder what exactly is so taboo about a studious white girl dating an age-appropriate white British guy whose dad is rich.
155. “Polar” D+ …It’s a shame to see Mads Mikkelsen slumming it in this garish “John Wick” knock-off, but maybe someone out there will realize that he would be absolutely perfect to join the actual “Wick” franchise.
154. “Secret Obsession” D+ …Netflix’s most blatant attempt to be all things to all people (Hallmark Channel-esque Christmas movies, Oscar bait movies, Z grade thrillers that belong on the Syfy channel will all be released during the same day) is this Lifetime movie. I’m not thrilled to (once again) have a godawful portrayal of an interracial couple as its center. …Does Hollywood think people in these relationships deserve to have their lives ruined just for being in them? Because that’s the message I’m getting.
153. “Hellboy” D+ …Although David Harbour is a fine Hellboy, I don’t think there’s a single viewer for this movie that wouldn’t have rather seen Guillermo Del Toro finish his “Hellboy” trilogy with Ron Perlman.
152. “Climax” D+ …More masochistic bullshit from Gaspar Noe, a director who tops even Lars Von Trier (or the Coen Brothers) in terms of how much he hates his own characters.
151. “Star Wars: Rise of the Skywalker” D+ …J.J. Abrams delivers another cover-band version of the original “Star Wars” trilogy. Whatever Disney decides to do with “Wars” in the future, it can’t be less impressive than this.
150. “Where’d You Go Bernadette?” C- …”White Privilege: The Movie” if Nancy Meyers adapted an Ayn Rand novel, it would look something like this. The Antarctica sections are nice to look at though.
149. “The Two Popes” C- …Fernando Meirelles made a pair of great movies in “The Constant Gardener” and “City of God,” and then nothing special for 15 years. “Popes” is the latter, as we watch the film completely let the Catholic Church off the hook for its horrific sex abuse scandal (it’s referenced only twice…one briefly, and the other time half the scene is muted) and embrace the lie that “all is well” under the regime of Pope Francis, a man who has given more speeches about change than has actually changed anything. I know desperate Catholics like to believe that Pope Francis is something radically different, but it’s been pretty much the same old, same old. And the movie feels longer than it actually is–that 99% of viewers will be watching this at home only increases the chances of people falling asleep.
148. “Glass” C- …Although I liked “Split” and loved “Unbreakable,” I don’t think this was the match-up fans of either movie were hoping for. How you can take three great, dynamic characters who should be out either saving and/or scaring the hell out of the world and decide to trap them in a completely static setting (an asylum) is mind-boggling. Not to mention setting up a conspiracy plot about a secret organization that you have no intention of following through on. Just…why? Why not give people the superhero cat-and-mouse game they were expecting and wanted?
147. “Echo in the Canyon” C- …Surprisingly boring. A movie about a legendary music scene shouldn’t be a quick fix for insomnia. Only movies about two Popes or anything by Win Wenders (who made a documentary about Pope Francis because of course he did) should be this boring.
146. “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile” C- …It’s hard to imagine making a movie about Ted Bunny that’s boring, but somehow this one pulls it off. Zac Ephron fully commits though.
145. “Velvet Buzzsaw” C- …A lot of potentially interesting ideas (the phoniness and theft of the art world meeting truly evil works of art) never really come together.
144. “Earthquake Bird” C- …Kind-of a mess really, but with an intriguing atmosphere. You don’t realize how little actually happens until the movie is over.
143. “6 Underground” C- …The best of action-movie intentions are ruined by Michael Bay’s horrifically over-the-top direction. A handful of stand-out set pieces (like using magnets in a gun battle) are completely undermined by a “style” that is this garishly in your face.
142. “Aladdin” C- …I know people love these unimaginative Disney remakes, but this has none of the charm or magic of the animated one.
141. “47 Meters Down: Uncaged” C …Could’ve been worse, but the first movie is better.
140. “Close” C …Naomi Rapace is ready to be an action star. If only she can get out of the “straight to Netflix” ghetto to make that happen.
139. “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” C …A movie I wanted to like more than I did. I was ready for old-fashioned, “gee whiz” charm, but this production looks more like a home movie.
138. “Luce” C …In which America’s worst fears about an on-the-rise black man are justified. This movie might actually make private school administrators more racist (as if they need help in that department), but a solid performance from Kelvin Harrison.
137. “A Dog’s Way Home” C …I sat through both “Journey” and “Way” and I still can’t tell these movies apart.
136. “A Dog’s Journey Home” C …Same
135. “High Flying Bird” C …A movie I wanted to like more than I did.
134. “Dark Phoenix” C …A movie I wanted to like less than I did. The “X-Men” franchise has always been a mess (I’ve only really liked the last two “Wolverine” movies), and this more somber, character-driven take isn’t any worse than the last several. But it’s the first bomb in the series, so everyone decided it was worse creatively.
133. “Ready or Not” C …Feels a lot longer than it really is. “Knives Out” offers a better version of watching a rich family try to undo a gold-digging interloper.
132. “Ash is the Purest White” C …Very slow, but with a great lead performance.
131. “The Secret Life of Pets 2” C …Three scattershot storylines, and some are a lot better than others. Kids will still probably like this movie though.
130. “Stuber” C …A great cast is largely stranded, but I think it may be the director’s fault as much as the script since several deleted scenes (and a gag reel) on the DVD make it look like many of the best jokes were edited out. If a director doesn’t understand comedy, not even Kumail Nanjiani, Dave Bautista, Betty Gilpin, and Natalie Morales can save them.
129. “Shaft” C …Samuel L. Jackson is having a blast, but the plot is Z-grade. And I know plots aren’t supposed to be good in blaxploitation, but “Shaft” isn’t really that either–never figuring out how to be dangerous instead of surprisingly tame.
128. “Captain Marvel” C …Despite all the buzz of making Marvel’s first female-driven superhero movie, this doesn’t feel like a distinctive movie.
127. “The Lion King” C …The best of the C movies still isn’t a good movie. Most of what made the original a classic (like originality) is gone.
126. “The Souvenir” C+ …Other critics went ga-ga for this movie that does have a great lead performance, but is otherwise tedious, overlong, and slow (or as they call it “finely observed”).
125. “The Lego Movie Part 2” C+ …I was surprised I didn’t enjoy this movie more than I did, but it’s definitely a drag compared to the gonzo first one.
124. “The Kid Who Would Be King” C+ …Although a lot of reviewers enjoyed this more than I did, it just never grabbed my attention really.
123. “They Shall Never Grow Old” C+ …The best of intentions can’t save a project that suffers mightily from the “uncanny valley” and/or boredom. For a better glimpse of what it’s like to be in WWI, try “1917.”
122. “Ma” C+ …Yet another movie where a black/white romance is tragically doomed, but at least Octavia Spencer delivers a fully committed, jaw-dropping performance.
121. “Tolkien” C+ …Earnest, but so much so you might find yourself drifting into sleep.
120. “Piercing” C+ …It doesn’t dig deep enough into what’s happening, but the two lead performances are strong.
119. “Lucy in the Sky” C+ …An astronaut’s drug-like obsession with going back to space is an interesting premise, but Noah Hawley lets it fall apart in the homestretch as we see events that are more goofy than unsettling. And, once again, we’re presented with a black/white couple (Zazie Beetz, Jon Hamm) who are standing in the way of a white heroine.
118. “In the Shadow of the Moon” C+ …A potentially interesting ethical quandary (is it right to kill people through time travel if it prevents something much worse?) is completely sanctioned and approved in this mostly thoughtless sci-fi story.
117. “Us” C+ …Although not blatantly offensive to interracial couples (unlike Peele’s first film), I can’t imagine anyone really loved this movie.
116. “Shadow” C+ …A beautiful rain-soaked action sequence with metal umbrellas is the high-light to a plot that is otherwise listless.
115. “Domino” C+ …A classic case of how Brian De Palma’s unintentionally-funny over-directing can wreck an interesting script.
114. “Serenity” C+ …I’m a sucker for a movie with originality, so even though this isn’t good, it is something I haven’t seen before.
113. “Little” C+ …Not good, but Marsai Martin is fantastic in it.
112. “Hustlers” B- …Undermined by another bland lead performance from Constance Wu (it’s funny how her character never really does anything except show up to get paid), but Jennifer Lopez is mesmerizing. I’m not surprised at all that it was apparently her idea to do her character’s opening strip scene (by far the most sensual scene in an otherwise prudish movie). Still, “Hustlers” seems afraid to turn her into a full-on villain, and you wish the movie had explored her character’s darker impulses a little more.
111. “Hotel Mumbai” B- …A sensational story that eventually feels like the prestige drama version of torture porn. Paul Greengrass knew how to make a movie about terrorism feel both riveting and non-exploitative in “United 93,” but this isn’t that movie.
110. “Alita: Battle Angel” B- …I’m surprised this movie has gotten such positive reviews since it’s really a mess.
109. “Isn’t it Romantic?” B- …The better Rebel Wilson movie of the year, but the main obstacle to her relationship with a white man is Priyanka Chopra. Once again, putting forth the not-so-subtle message that interracial couples don’t have as much right to exist as ones centered on a white woman (“Lucy in the Sky”).
108. “Five Feet Apart” B- …A great lead performance almost single-handedly saves this movie.
107. “Ugly Dolls” B- …A great message saves an otherwise lackluster animated film.
106. “Detective Pikachu” B- …Kids will love this movie, adults will tolerate it. There are certainly worse Ryan Reynolds movies this year (“6 Underground”).
105. “Meeting Gorbachev” B- …Werner Herzog’s hero-worship of Gorbachev means he never asks him the questions people might really want to know. This is mostly about an old-timer struggling with loss, and yet somehow moves even slower than “The Irishman.” It’s still a good introductory to Soviet history though.
104. “Atlantics” B- …The sheer unusualness of this movie makes up for some of the slower stretches; I’ve never seen a ghost story quite like it.
103. “I Am Mother” B- …Interesting ideas; so-so execution, but there are certainly worse sci-fi movies on Netflix.
102. “Dumbo” B- …Tim Burton overstuffs and overcomplicates this overly long remake; what made the original “Dumbo” such an endearing classic is its simplicity.
101. “The Farewell” B- …More than a little overrated. Once you’ve gotten your head around the central premise (lying to an old woman about the extent of her cancer), that’s pretty much all there is.
100. “Downton Abbey” B- …I’ve never seen an episode of the TV series, but I had a hard time staying awake through this. [There’s also a uniquely British tendency to act like what’s happening is more exciting than what we’re actually watching with lines like “I do love our adventures” “yes, but isn’t it a relief when they’re over?” Or about 10 lines too many devoted to a butler’s mild faux-pas with the King of England…which wouldn’t even be a faux pas if people stopped pretending royalty is a thing.] Fans of the show will probably love it though.
99. “Holiday in the Wild” B- …Nobody’s idea of a great movie, but a sweet, Christmas-flavored romance that delves into saving elephants? You could do worse for Hallmark-esque escapism.
98. “High Life” B- …Interesting ideas that never really make a convincing whole.
97. “Her Smell” B- …So divisive, that probably half the audience will stop watching in the first ten minutes, but if you can make it to the drama’s less-hyperbolic second half, then you’ll see one of the best performances in the year out of Elizabeth Moss.
96. “The King” B- …An overly moody Timothy Chalamet performance trips up this otherwise solid period piece.
95. “In the Tall Grass” B– …an effective horror movie. And audiences may prefer something straightforward vs. a more ambitious Stephen King adaptation like “Doctor Sleep.”
94. “Rattlesnake” B- …A strong performance from Carmen Ejogo, and a handful of genuinely creepy images (like the priest who morphs into a smoke cloud).
93. “The Knight Before Christmas” B- …I’m almost embarrassed at how much I enjoyed this Hallmark Channel movie that wound up on Netflix somehow. I know I don’t win “critic’s cool points” by saying this a better movie than critical darlings like “The Farewell” or “High Life,” but you try resisting Vanessa Hudgens in a cozy Christmas sweater.
92. “Penguins” B- …Coma-inducing, but very peaceful with beautiful scenery. Something to watch at home and perhaps when you’re trying to fall asleep. But for a Disney Nature documentary, that’s not necessarily the worst thing.
91. “Burning Cane” B …A movie that’s easier to admire than enjoy, but it still reveals powerful truths about the fallacy of modern religion, which so often chooses to protect itself rather than victims.
90. “Last Black Man in San Francisco” B …A great performance from Jonathan Majors, and a few very gentle ideas (maybe too gentle since the movie is a little slow) about masculinity and gentrification.
89. “Booksmart” B …Critics went nuts for this movie, but I found it a little too reluctant to really go nuts (not unlike its straight laced heroes).
88. “Good Boys” B …Meanwhile, the boys in this movie are all too willing to participate in anarchy, but it goes on for a little too long, and the last ten minutes are largely unnecessary.
87. “The Aftermath” B …Unfairly dinged by critics, it’s nowhere near as bad as you’ve heard.
86. “Cold Pursuit” B …Just when you thought there was no fresh way to present a mob-based movie.
85. “Fyre” B …Solid take on the disastrous “Fyre Festival” (I especially like Ja Rule’s contradictory claim that they didn’t commit fraud, they committed false advertising), but I would’ve rather watched the Hulu take on this since it included an interview with the man so many people are talking about here.
84. “The Sun is Also a Star” B …Tender, slow-moving romance that would’ve been a better fit for Netflix than a straight theatrical release.
83. “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” B …I might’ve been the only “breaking Bad” fan alive who didn’t like Jesse Pinkman, and really could’ve cared less what happened to him after the series. But the version we see here is almost a grown-up, and certainly headed in the right direction.
82. “Dragged Across Concrete” B …I love Craig S. Zahler (“Bone Tomahawk,” and the extremely underrated “Brawl on Cellblock 99”), but this is the first movie he’s made that I didn’t truly love. Although there are still things to like about it–like a truly terrifying villain who never takes off his ski mask.
81. “Triple Frontier” B …I wouldn’t think it would be possible to make a movie about commandos stealing a drug lord’s fortune be unexciting, but this movie is afraid to go full “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” or 80’s action thriller. The result is something that includes a lot of complaining and only one stand-out action sequence: when they raid said drug lord’s mansion, but it is really good.
80. “Yesterday” B …An original premise and delightful chemistry between the romantic leads might make you feel this is a better movie than it really is, and that’s a good thing.
79. “How to Train Your Dragon 3” B …A movie I thought I would enjoy more than I did. Probably my least favorite in the franchise, and something of a relief to hear that this will be the last one.
78. “Jexi” B …How pitiful is it that fans of black/white couples receiving positive portrayals on screen have to look to disposable Adam Devine comedies to get them? Still, there’s at least a couple of decent ideas floating around this thing about digital dependency, and the misery it causes.
77. “The Missing Link” B …One of the least memorable movies Laika has ever made, but still more enjoyable than “The Boxtrolls.”
76. “Spider-Man: Far From Home” B …A great Jake Gyllenhaal performance is the best thing here, but sometime between now and never it would be nice to watch a Tom Holland-led Spider Man movie and not have more sympathy for the villain.
75. “Shazam” B …Zachary Levi’s joyful performance is certainly livelier than most superheroes. A convoluted third act dampens the fun somewhat, but this is still promising direction for a franchise to head in.
74. “OG” B …This HBO movie was better than most of what I saw in theaters this year, with a strong performance from Jeffrey Wright.
73. “Knocking Down the House” B …People like myself are mystified as to why AOC has captured so much hatred, and this documentary does a good job revealing the relatively-normal person behind the conservative hysteria.
72. “Klaus” B …An animated film that adults may enjoy more than kids, who might be put off by the cruddy animation style.
71. “Frozen 2” B …The original movie was a near instant classic, and this definitely isn’t that. But it is weirder, and some of the best moments are the strangest, like the 80’s inspired song “Lost in the Woods.”
70. “The Red Sea Diving Resort” B …Completely misunderstood movie that is much better than you’ve heard.
69. “The Good Liar” B …Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren are excellent in a con-man caper that takes its time…maybe too much time, but is still a smooth, satisfying experience.
68. “Brittany Runs a Marathon” B …Although the main character seems determined to alienate everyone around her (I can’t count the number of scenes where she pushes away help…even while we don’t really see her offer to help anyone), it’s still a solid movie about millennial weight loss, a topic rarely explored.
67. “A Marriage Story” B …A movie that alternates between hilarious (shout outs to LA’s mindless love of “space,” and a disastrous home visit to determine custody) and grating. But Adam Driver may very well win Best Actor, and he truly does deliver.
66. “Doctor Sleep” B …Rebecca Ferguson’s cult is genuinely frightening, but there’s not a lot of reason to connect this sequel to the original “Shining,” and the last third may feel like reaching to achieve that aim.
65. “The Man Without Gravity” B …Wildly original and moving, but a little slow.
64. “The Brink” B …Steve Bannon goes about building an international coalition of nationalists–which is a fascinating topic, but the execution seems more interested in busting Bannon on tedious things like pronunciation of a Chinese bigwig’s name or telling the same lame joke (“a rose between two thorns”) several times. The director doesn’t get across how dangerous what Bannon is doing truly is.
63. “The Kid” B …The movie itself is only so-so, but Ethan Hawke gives a fantastic performance as Pat Garrett.
62. “Parasite” B …A movie that critics have lost their mind over, and I wanted to like a lot more than I did. To me, it feels overlong, occasionally goofy, and has a paranoia about poor people (happily getting gassed in the opening scene, living in walls, capable of vast deceptions, then murder of their host) that feels regressive.
61. “Rocketman” B …To me, a better movie than “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
60. “Tell Me Who I Am” B …Fascinating topic, but you can sometimes feel the director straining to milk this material for every last drop of emotion. Still, the image of two twins facing off over their shared history and memories is mind blowing.
59. “The Aeronauts” B …Very boring flashback scenes undermine this hot air balloon adventure, as does the fact that the majority of its audience won’t see it on the big screen (the theatrical release was practically non-existent). But since I did see it in a theater, it really did make the difference.
58. “Beach Bum” B …Moondog has a hedonistic way of living that is infectious, and brings out excitingly insane performance from all those around him (Zac Ephron, Jonah Hill, Martin Lawrence). But his final act–which feels right for him–may infuriate audiences so much, they’ll be hard-pressed to like him.
57. “Birds of Passage” B …Intriguing themes, but static execution (for the most part).
56. “Fast Color” B …A very different kind of superhero movie that flirts with being almost too esoteric, but I enjoyed its original rhythms.
55. “Fighting with my Family” B …I had zero interest in seeing this movie, and was shocked at how good it was.
54. “The Upside” B …Another movie I had no real interest in watching before I did, and I was surprised at how moving (and yet restrained) it was.
53. “Plus One” B …Not wanting to experience “wedding season” (a dozen weddings in a several month period) alone isn’t even a remotely relatable topic of distress for me, but the leads do have great chemistry. And there’s a pointed comment about millennials being so afraid to get “hurt” that they forget to live.
52. “Knives Out” B …A great ensemble makes up for a message that–to be honest–will make people more skeptical of immigration than before. It’s hard to argue that the family’s lives aren’t considerably worse since Christopher Plummer met Ana De Armas. Still, even if the movie occasionally feels like work, it’s easily the best of the B movies.
51. “Never Look Back” B+ …The father-in-law from hell looms large in this drama, and even if it’s about 30 minutes too long, its exploration of how emotional tragedy and living in repressive regimes can lead to creative constipation is effective.
50. “American Woman” B+ …Sienna Miller gives a career best performance, and you can really see a character mature over the disappearance of her daughter, and various relationships.
49. “The Man Who Killed Hitler and then Bigfoot” B+ …One of the most delightfully strange movies of the year (even more so because the movie is played so straight), and proves Sam Elliott really could read restaurant menus and I’d pay to watch it.
48. “Honeyboy” B+ …Great performances from Shia Lebouf and Noah Jupe power this movie.
47. “The Peanut Butter Falcon” B+ …Between this and “Honeyboy,” Shia Lebouf is now officially back, turning in one exciting performance after another.
46. “Brightburn” B+ …An underrated horror film that will likely gain cult following in the years to come.
45. “It: Chapter 2” B+ …Takes the Faulkner-esque view that the past is never really over and makes that literal. A surprisingly moving exploration of how the things that scared us as children never really go away.
44. “Paddleton” B+ …It might sound crazy that Ray Romano gives one of the best performances from an actor this year, but that’s only if you haven’t been paying attention to just what a fine actor Romano has become in recent years (“Parenthood,” “Men of a Certain Age”).
43. “Rust Creek” B+ …Undiscovered gem that is part of a mini-revival of solid rural set dramas (“Burning Cane,” “Little Woods,” “Them That Follow”).
42. “Escape Room” B+ …This movie got dumped into theaters during the first week of January 2019, and it is a much, much better movie than that suggests.
41. “Toy Story 4” B+ …A sequel that has no real reason to exist since the “Toy Story” trilogy ended on a high note with the third movie. But at least it’s not an outright disappointment like “The Incredibles 2.”
40. “Avengers: Endgame” B+ …To be honest, I enjoyed “Infinity War” a little bit more, but this is still a satisfying ending to one of the most successful movie franchises in history…and not many sequels get to say that.
39. “I Lost My Body” B+ …Probably my favorite animated movie of the year, although that may not be saying much.
38. “Transit” B+ …Historically agnostic was a big theme for this year’s movies.
37. “Apollo 11” B+ …I love space movies (as you’ll see from my number 1 pick of the year), but this documentary on the moon landing could make even the most patient viewer feel a little restless. Still, some truly beautiful images.
36. “Brexit” A- …This HBO movie does as good as anything Hollywood has produced to explain how Trump won. Through the lens of Brexit, this is about the deep anxiety and sense of loss rural people (or working-class urbanites) are feeling.
35. “Little Women” A- …A warm, cozy-blanket of a movie. It is so big, and open hearted that it’ll be hard for even the most cynical reviewers to dislike.
34. “Late Night” A- …Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling (in probably her best performance) play off each other well.
33. “The Edge of Democracy” A- …Watching a democratically-elected female President get railroaded out of her office is scary, but not nearly as much as what replaces her: Juan Bolasaro, described as the “Trump of the Tropics.” And I wish this documentary had included a little bit more about the man who attributed the wildfires of the Amazon to Leonardo DiCaprio, among other insanities.
32. “Deadwood: The Movie” A- …For fans of the series only, but it’s great to see the last act of Al Swearingen and Co.
31. “Between Two Ferns: The Movie” A- …Probably the most purely funny movie of 2019. It doesn’t overcomplicate things with a convoluted narrative, just wall-to-wall dumbassed laughs.
30. “The Laundromat” A- …How rich people hide their money is a big topic in 2019 (also check out the book “Moneyland”), and Steven Soderbergh reveals different tax frauds in several different stories. Meryl Streep is also great in one of her loosest, most experimental roles in years.
29. “Blinded by the Light” A- …The best musical of 2019. Of course, it’s competition was “Cats” but that doesn’t mean director Gurinda Chadha delivers anything less than a great movie that shows what music-obsession can mean for someone who feels like the songs are speaking right to them.
28. “The Biggest Little Farm” A- …”Fun” isn’t a word you expect to throw around about a farming documentary, but this is a very accessible, entertaining way for even casual observers to learn about sustainable farming and start caring about where their food comes from.
27. “Ice On Fire” A- …Even if you already know most of what’s presented in this documentary, it never hurts to hear it again.
26. “John Wick 3” A- …Relentless and enjoyable and relentlessly enjoyable. My favorite bit involves Wick discovering “improvements in body armor” make an assassin team nearly unkillable…nearly.
25. “Crawl” A- …One of the best horror movies of 2019, and probably my favorite; genuinely exciting and well-staged.
24. “The Long Shot” A- …Skepticism about the real impact of an environmental bill isn’t something you expect to see in a romantic comedy. I consider it a great thing.
23. “The Current War” A …Whereas “Transit” uses new technology to tell an old story, “Current War” feels thrillingly of-the-moment despite taking place at the dawn of mass electricity. I loved the feel of this “battle of the titans” drama, which may lay the foundation for the turf wars between Silicon Valley’s innovators.
22. “1917” A …It only took 20 years, but Sam Mendes finally delivers on the promise of “American Beauty,” a technically flawless movie. I had a hard time not including it in the top 20.
“The Top Twenty”
20 (tie). “Wild Rose” and “Little Woods” …Two very different stories about rural-trapped women trying their best to live their dreams. These indies also happen to include the two best actress performances of the year in Tessa Thompson (flinty, compassionate, anxious, and desperate as a woman trying to get enough money to get the hell out of a North Dakota dead-zone), and Jessie Buckley (blowing the doors off as a country music singer born in Scotland). I especially liked a heart to heart scene between Buckley and her mother, where her mother confesses the real reason she’s been so non-encouraging of her daughter’s dreams.
19. “The Mustang” …The topic of whether or not you can save an abuser is extremely timely (I’d also check out the great 2019 book “No Visible Bruises”), and Matthias Schoenarts delivers a career-best performance as a man you’re hoping against hope can be healed through horse-training. To me, this is just as moving as “The Rider,” even though it hasn’t received nearly the acclaim.
18. “The Great Hack” …A documentary that peels back the layers of digital deception that had to take place for Brexit and Trump to happen. Should be required viewing for citizens in a democracy.
17. “The Arctic” …The year’s most beautiful film. Watching Mads Mikkelsen survive (in a near wordless performance) through near unimaginable conditions is my idea of a great time. Which perhaps is all the explanation needed to explain my next, inexplicable pick…
16. “Under the Silverlake” …A movie I actually didn’t even like the first time I saw it, but that grew leaps and bounds the more I thought about it. There’s something here about the need for pop culture, conspiracy theories, and status to fill holes in our lives. Even though the movie takes the stance that delving too deep into anything is a losing battle, you’ll find yourself doing exactly that–if you push past the initial “what the hell did I just watch?” revulsion.
15. “The Irishman” …Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic has serious flaws (why digitally color DeNiro’s eyes or not use a body double during a particularly unconvincing beatdown scene?), but by delving into how the mafia corrupted the dream of organized labor, it’s capturing more than just the main character’s sense of loss. Even though Joe Pesci gives the best performance, Pacino’s Hoffa (portrayed as a good man fighting a ruthless new corporatized America) is the real, haunted soul of the movie. And little flourishes like captions that show how a character dies when they’re introduced expertly get across that most of these characters are trapped the second they become a part of this world
14. “A Hidden Life” …Terrence Malick finally gets his groove back. To call this his best film since “Tree of Life” would be a huge understatement, as it’s the first one that doesn’t feel naggingly abstract and pretentious. He’s grounded his film in the very real sense that the world is against a conscientious man (whose wife is literally spat on by villagers who don’t get why he won’t just serve Hitler), and if only the movie had been about 30 minutes shorter (some scenes are unbelievably repetitive), it easily would’ve been one of the year’s 5 best. As is, it’s still a winner, capturing the soul of a man who feels his country has lost theirs.
13. “Bombshell” …The first great movie about the MeToo era, and in the most unlikely of places, Fox News, with its constant cutthroat competitiveness (who knew O’Reilly was paranoid about Limbaugh and Hannity?) and dehumanizing message that couldn’t help but spill into treating their own people like they’re disposable. “Bombshell” follows a group we don’t see a lot in Hollywood movies: conservative women, and even if I wish it had dug a little bit deeper into its character’s real feelings and contradictions (how can be Margot Robbie go from Bible-thumping to lesbian sex in a few hours time? And how can a woman as smart as Megyn Kelly really believe some of the stuff she says?), it still feels like we’re trespassing into a world we barely get to see. And Roger Ailes harassment of Robbie is one of the most squirm-inducing scenes I’ve seen this year.
12. “Uncut Gems” …For every one person who loves this, there will probably be two that hate it, but the fans will know who they are pretty quick. Even if certain scenes are borderline-headache inducing, that’s only to capture the jostling energy of New York City (no other film in recent memory has come close) and the mindset of our anxiety soaked “hero” Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler hasn’t been this good since “Reign Over Me,” and this will likely be the best, most tragic role he ever gets to play), who is running out of time in almost every way: to be a success, to find out who really loves him, and perhaps most literally to pay off a gambling debt.
11. “Ford vs. Ferrari” …Christian Bale and Matt Damon are my favorite bromance of the year (no small thing considering the competition from DiCaprio/Pitt, Pryce/Hopkins, and DeNiro/Pacino) as we watch them go through hell just to help Henry Ford sell more cars. But it’s not about that to them, as they truly want to see if they can build a car that can beat Ferrari. You’re almost shocked at how much you actually care about something so trivial, but that’s a testament to how much Bale and Damon get you to care. And the racing scenes are terrific too.
10. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” …Did Charles Manson single-handedly kill the bohemian dreams of the 60’s and 70’s? Tarantino seems to have pinpointed the exact moment the rightwing felt a visceral hatred (really a fear) of “hippies” and someone like Cliff Booth (a hilarious and vulnerable Leonardo DiCaprio) would’ve probably turned their back on being open-minded and ran to the rightwing (as other “cowboys” like Clint Eastwood, Tom Selleck, Jon Voight, and John Wayne did). Instead, Tarantino’s ending lets Cliff join the “cool kids,” and hopes for a marriage between the four-square mainstream (represented by TV Westerns) and Alt-Left hippies. One of the most underreported things about Tarantino is how inviting his universe is (even people in Kansas are lined up for whatever he does), and how he’s always wanted to marry the mainstream with his pet interests. “Once” is probably the best representation of that theme.
9. “The Art of Self-Defense” …Jesse Eisenberg, bad ass? From this intriguing idea we’re given the most bruise-black comedy of the year, an alternately hilarious and frightening exploration of the fear and rage of modern masculinity. It also features my pick for the year’s scariest villain, a survival-of-the-fittest Libertarian on steroids (“achievement”–that is really just obedience–matters more than basic humanity or empathy, both of which are seen as weaknesses) whose calm “confidence” almost completely disguises his psychopathy.
8. “The Best of Enemies” …The year’s most misunderstood film. Not only can you forget about seeing it in the Oscar conversation, but this actually has a negative rating on Rotten Tomatoes. That’s because most critics simply don’t understand what this movie is really about: the enormous pressure to do the wrong thing (disguised as the only sensible thing) in communities that have a disdain for minority rights. This is a vastly better film than both “Greenbook” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (another movie where Sam Rockwell was asked to play a much more cartoonish racist), and so–naturally–it hasn’t received anywhere near the acclaim. In “Enemies,” Rockwell’s Klan leader gives up something some people could never understand: a sense of belonging and purpose built primarily on fear (of outsiders, of changing times, of loss) for one that is radically different than any he’s seen. “Enemies” does a great job of getting you inside someone who believes they’re being attacked (“our way of life is endangered” is something bigots say in 2019 or 1969 or 1869, never changes) even as they’re keeping others down, and the slow-dawning realization that that’s not true.
7. “Dolemite is My Name” …Eddie Murphy is back in the year’s best comedic performance. The joy he feels is infectious, clearly loving his juiciest role in at least 20 years. You can feel the slow creep of middle age seeping into some of his most vulnerable moments (mostly with his sublime co-star and protege Da’Vine Joy Randolph), as he knows time is running out. His quest for fame (he sees it more as to “exist”) never comes off as straight vanity, and the ending gets you to feel the pleasure any entertainer must feel in delighting a crowd. After people have seen my number 6 pick, watch “Dolemite” for a more light-hearted take on a comedian’s struggle to the top.
6. “Joker” …Some of the press coverage for “Joker” seemed to almost want there to be mass violence triggered by the movie. [They seemed disappointed that there were–as of this writing–no major incidents of violence related to this “Joker” movie.] And that maybe shows why this movie needs to exist in the first place: so little is understood about Violent Young Men, people may think merely portraying them on-screen will create a spasm of violence in reaction (it’s appears to be a “Voldemort” problem), as if lonely young men will merely forget they’re miserable and isolated if they never see themselves on screen. “Joker” has a lot to say about mental illness, a quest for fame in order to “exist,” income inequality, an uncaring society, and (especially) alienation. I won’t call it the easiest 2019 movie to watch, but it speaks to the moment in a way that most Oscar contenders simply don’t, and I was thrilled that a movie that is really about isolation was able to make a billion dollars at the box office.
5. “Waves” …Two great movies in one, as stand-out director Trey Edward Shults uses changes in tone, pacing, camera work, and music to fully put you into two different people’s perspectives. Roger Ebert once said movies were like an empathy machine that puts us in the perspective of another person, and “Waves” succeeds at that more clearly than any movie I watched in 2019. It humanizes the black male “monster” we see as a flat-character on cable news, and shows how differently his sister experiences the world, and the world experiences her.
4. “American Factory” …The year’s Best Documentary raises interesting questions about globalism as a Chinese company builds a factory in Ohio that is unsafe, low-paying, stressful, and an all-around lousy place to work. It pulls back the curtain on our eternal race to the bottom for “growth,” which means we prioritize job creation over almost anything else. [The company is almost being paid to create these jobs through tax incentives and a captive state government.] “Factory” portrays an America drowning in corporate flim-flam disguised as progress, and a dehumanizing system that eats even its most ardent defenders: like a plant manager who is ready to kill Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown for suggesting a labor union come to the plant, then thinks the plant needs one after he himself is ousted.
3. “Dark Waters” …What’s the biggest problem you’ve never heard of? I would argue that it’s the amount of “Forever Chemicals” Americans consume on a daily basis: pollutants that enter the blood and not only never leave, but could be genetically passed on to your descendants. “Waters” is about the real-life battle between Mark Ruffalo’s corporate lawyer turned crusader who discovered DuPont was up to some very dirty business indeed. The movie takes you step by step through a legal system that has been created by the DuPonts of the world to protect them, and exactly how hard it is to hold corporations accountable. The ending line of dialogue (Ruffalo saying “still here”) is one of the year’s most subtly uplifting.
2. “The Lighthouse” …Feels like it was pulled from director Robert Eggers’s own nightmares, a uniquely personal vision of a shadowy light house (the inky darkness almost feels like a physical presence) where the two workers do not trust each other–to put it mildly. Pattinson is great, but Willem Dafoe gives my favorite performance by an actor this year, a bonkers turn that includes speeches that are simultaneously laugh-out-loud funny and terrifying (perhaps funny because of how terrifying they are), and an ambiguity that fills every scene with menacing insinuations and pitiful sorrow.
The Best Movie of 2019: “Ad Astra” …Director James Gray’s masterpiece takes some of his trademarks (a sense of mystery and introspection) and blasts it off into a radically different narrative unlike any I’ve ever seen. “Astra” is as much a Greek tragedy as it is a rousing sci-fi adventure, combining a space epic with a very complicated father-son relationship. That it also finds time to include my favorite scenes of the year (the opening free fall to Earth, a moon chase and shoot out, Ruth Negga’s “comfort room” exposition, and the emotional climax outside Neptune where Pitt finally has to let his dad go) is just icing on the cake.