MARRIAGE STORY – In theory, a warts and all divorce drama should probably feel like a bit of a slog to endure. And yet, in the hands of dependably idiosyncratic filmmaker Noah Baumbach, Marriage Story is not only a keenly observant and incredibly absorbing entertainment, but also a titanic, multi-faceted acting showcase for stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver. Playing flawed yet well-meaning parents braving the complex and overwhelming process of legal separation, the two leads wring every bit of nuance, reality and subtle humor from Baumbach’s wonderfully sincere screenplay (his best since 2005’s Squid and the Whale) with nary a false note. While there is ugliness on display, there’s also so much love, warmth and compassion that, when all is said and done, we walk away genuinely optimistic about where the future may take these two.
THE IRISHMAN – If there was ever a doubt Martin Scorsese had said all there was to say with the gangster picture, consider The Irishman his bullet-riddled rejection of such concerns. Eschewing the propulsive glitz and glamor of Goodfellas or Casino, the legendary auteur’s sober genre eulogy instead offers up a mesmerizingly intimate portrait of a blue collar mobster slowly undone by an unremarkable life of crime. Using mostly effective de-aging effects in order to trace the decades-spanning rise and fall of Robert De Niro’s pokerfaced hitman, Scorsese crafts a spell-binding American tragedy filled out with poignant performances by Joe Pesci and Al Pacino and engrossing historical sweep. Unfolding with the delicate precision of an elegantly-written novel, this is the reflective work of an artist coming to terms with the fact that for these characters the end arrives not with an exclamation mark but with a single melancholy period.
4) US – Slashing away any concerns about a sophomore slump with a pair of golden scissors, Jordan Peele’s daring follow-up to the universally adored Get Out is an exhilarating and disturbing evolution of his audacious brand of socially conscious terror. Headlined by an unbelievable Lupita Nyong’o as a troubled mother whose family vacation is disrupted by a quartet of sinister doppelgangers, Us is every bit as a scary, creepy and funny (Peele knows how to score a major laugh!) as fans of his debut could ever hope. But beyond that, the film underscores the writer/director’s knack for world-building, using his relatively simple hook to draw the viewer into a realm far stranger and more thought-provoking than ever expected. A thematically rich exercise in adult-oriented horror tackling themes of inequality, oppression and duality, this picture haunts the mind long after the screams have died down.
PARASITE – Arguably the predominant theme in cinema in 2019 was the increasingly volatile disparity between the haves and the have-nots. And, in retrospect, no filmmaker was more geared to deliver the definitive statement on the subject than Bong Joon Ho. Boasting a back catalogue loaded with thoughtful examinations of the issue (including 2014’s spectacular Snowpiercer), the consistently great South Korean writer/director blew critics and fans away with this powerful offbeat drama about an impoverished family who manipulate their way into an affluent household. A brilliant slice of pitch black satire, the helmer’s latest is a near perfect blend of Hitchcockian suspense, unpredictable twists and turns, powerhouse acting (Kang-ho Song as the desperate patriarch in particular), sly humor and profound heart-break.
6) MIDSOMMAR – For many horror helmers, 2018’s revelatory nightmare Hereditary would be a career milestone. But for writer/director Ari Aster it was just a warm up. Fascinated with damaged interpersonal dynamics, the sun-soaked, Sweden-set Midsommar sees the aspiring master shifting away from his debut’s dysfunctional family drama in favor of a twisted and draining examination of toxic romantic relationships. Starring 2019 breakthrough champ Florence Pugh as a depressed young woman who joins her selfish boyfriend and his pals on a trip to a bizarre Wicker Man-ish pagan festival, this anxiety-inducing stroke of deranged genius runs the unholy gamut, generating soul-shaking shudders, unanticipated chuckles and raw catharsis.
WAVES – A vibrant and devastating emotional rollercoaster of a movie, Trey Edward Schults’ shattering account of a suburban African American family hurled into unforeseen chaos was among the year’s most impactful sleepers. Largely carried on the ultra-capable shoulders of relative newcomers Taylor Russell and Kelvin Harrison Jr., Waves classily sidesteps clichés and familiar beats, digging into the tumultuous experiences of its leads with honesty, insight and genuine empathy. Shults, who previously wrote and helmed the 2017 arthouse horror effort It Comes at Night, operates on a whole other level here, cementing himself as a bold, ambitious creative voice worthy of paying close attention to in the future.
8) KNIVES OUT – Fresh off of his ludicrously controversial stint in Star Wars land, writer/director Rian Johnson’s gleeful palette-cleansing ode to the works of Agatha Christie is a complete riot, playfully prodding the tried-and-true whodunnit formula in fun and gripping new directions. As Johnson and his murderer’s row of all-star suspects weave a razor-edged web for Daniel Craig’s Southern-fried detective Benoit Blanc to wryly unravel you can feel the joy emanating from each and every impeccably-staged moment. That Knives Out proved such a hit at the box office, and stands poised to launch a smart and innovative franchise, is genuinely encouraging, as this film didn’t just air out the parlor room; it made it a must-visit destination.
AVENGERS: ENDGAME – Crafting an exciting and satisfying end to an epic tale is a nearly impossible feat, and most fall short (helloooo The Rise of Skywalker!). But somehow, those merry marching storytellers at Marvel grandly closed off their unprecedented 22-film Infinity Saga in such thrilling fashion they almost made it look easy! Bidding adieu to beloved fan favorites and tying off a decade’s worth of narrative loose ends in infectiously high-spirted style, Endgame was the rare 2019 blockbuster that demonstrated an implicit understanding that, while large-scale action can be neat and all, it’s truly the characters we buy tickets for. And that the triumphant sight of dozens of armored Avengers charging into battle in an unstoppable wave gives us chills not because of the flashy costumes and hardware, but rather because of the quirky, courageous and unwaveringly human personalities underneath.
10) THE LIGHTHOUSE – Few directors capture a palpable sense of place better than writer/director Robert Eggers. This brine, piss and blood-drenched psychological thriller about two 19th century lighthouse keepers (Willem Dafoe & Robert Pattinson) succumbing to serious cabin fever on a lonely, barren rock is utterly unlike any other movie from this past year. Or any year, honestly. Brimming with mythical sea creatures, crude body functions and hallucinogenic flights of frenzied fancy, The Lighthouse proves that 2016’s unforgettable The Witch was no fluke. Now let's all pray we won’t have to wait long for more of Eggers' mad visions to rise to the surface.
*Due to delayed release schedules I was unfortunately not able to see Uncut Gems or 1917 in time for consideration.