Though most Top 10 lists have already been published for 2019 (including our list compiled by several writers at Rogerebert.com), I decided to have mine revealed closer to the Oscars, considering the wealth of wonderful films that have (and have not) been recognized during this year’s awards season. These are not ten films I’ve selected, but ten rankings, all of which contain multiple titles, aside from my top slot. I’ve also included special sections at the end dedicated to my favorite Guilty Pleasure, the Worst film of last year and four particular performances I want to celebrate even though the films didn’t make the list.
Without further ado, here are my favorite movies of 2019…
1. “Marriage Story“
Noah Baumbach’s portrait of a couple’s failed marriage is a very moving family story and one of the best movies of the year thanks in large part to incredible performances by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, and supporting roles by Laura Dern, Julie Hagerty, Ray Liotta, Alan Alda and Wallace Shawn. It’s a heartbreaker as you watch the too-true realities of how the divorce process can wear down the civility of what started out as a loving relationship.
2. “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” and “The Irishman“
Quentin Tarantino’s ninth feature “ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD” is also one of his best, with its poignant exploration of fading innocence for an action star and his understudy in the months leading up to Sharon Tate’s murder. How he melds fantasy with history is cathartic without ever succumbing to denial. It’s hard to believe this is the first pairing of Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, but what a pairing! They are great together. And other actors add much to the film, including Margot Robbie, Dakota Fanning and Bruce Dern.
Martin Scorsese, as Roger often said, is one of our best living directors, and his latest “THE IRISHMAN” is an epic that peers with a critical eye at the backroom activities of union leaders all the way to the criminal disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa (played in a scene-stealing role by Al Pacino). Other actors carefully building the narrative include Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Jesse Plemons, Anna Paquin, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Sebastian Maniscalco and more.
The life of Harriet Tubman was finally brought to the big screen, thanks to Kasi Lemmons’ rousing film “HARRIET” starring the enormously talented Cynthia Erivo. This is a real Superhero story with no cape necessary. It is surprising that this is the first narrative film about Harriet Tubman, and producer Debra Martin Chase said it took many “no’s” before the film was finally made. But the fact that Harriet Tubman went on missions in the Underground Railroad to personally help free over 70 family and friends from enslavement, and took other actions in conjunction with others to help free over 800 more, is truly remarkable. It shows what can be done when one has a burning desire to stand up to injustice. I can’t listen to the song “Stand Up” without getting emotional about what this heroine really did at a time when it was one of the most dangerous things to do.
Eddie Murphy received his best role in ages thanks to Craig Brewer’s uproarious ode to the scrappy ingenuity of comedian-turned-cult filmmaker and star, Rudy Ray Moore in “DOLEMITE IS MY NAME.” And boy is Eddie Murphy back! This film is by turns funny, earnest, and a great backdrop for a cast of ensemble actors including the hilarious Wesley Snipes, and the divine Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Lady Reed. Others who add to the joy of the film include Keegan-Michael Key, Craig Robinson, Mike Epps, Tituss Burgess, Luenell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ron Cephas Jones and even cameos by Snoop Dogg and Chris Rock. A good time is promised to all.
“TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM” is Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ uplifting portrait of the Nobel Prize-winning author, who had one of the most distinctive voices of any American writer. It was bittersweet that the film arrived in theaters less than two months prior to Morrison’s passing, and it stands as an essential tribute to her legacy.
Fernando Meirelles’ enormously entertaining film “THE TWO POPES,” about the unlikely bond between Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) and Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce), proved to be refreshing. How much of this actually took place between the polar opposite popes, I don’t know. But their conversations about religion and philosophy and the roles they play in the world are interesting at a time of rampant global disillusionment in our world leaders. And you can’t get two better leads than Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce going toe-to-toe on the philosophy of their beliefs and their desire to do what is best for the future of the Catholic Church.
Oh how I love Fred Rogers! He was an embodiment of all that is good in the world, and Tom Hanks’ pitch-perfect performance in Marielle Heller’s warm-hearted film ‘A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD” nails his signature brand of otherworldly empathy. But it is not afraid to deal with issues of doubt and other too-human emotions that plague a writer who is reluctantly assigned to write about Mr. Rogers even though he doesn’t believe he is the real deal. What happens when this writer (based on a true story) is drawn into Mr. Roger’s orbit is a touching transformation.
Terrence Malick’s “A HIDDEN LIFE” tells the devastating yet deeply inspirational tale of a conscientious objector (August Diehl) who refuses to support the Nazis, even if it means giving up his own life. Malick’s films are always visually beautiful and this one is no exception, showing the sweeping countryside of people trying to live their lives while Hitler is threatening the very existence of people he hates for no reason. But the real beauty of this film is watching Diehl’s evolution as a conscientious objector and the inner life of his growing consciousness about drawing a line between what he truly believes is right and wrong and the price he is willing to pay for it. Is Malick drawing a parallel to then and now? You can draw your own conclusions.
5. “Joker”, “Parasite”, “Jojo Rabbit” and “Knives Out”
Though Todd Phillips’ gritty and unsettling take on the classic comic book villain in “JOKER” received an impassioned backlash, I found it to be an utterly mesmerizing showcase for its star, Joaquin Phoenix. How Phillips can go from the “Hangover” series to find the humanity in the character of the Joker is a trip worth taking. Note, however, that Joaquin Phoenix’s descent is not a barrel of laughs, as his character, who clearly needs psychological help, finds all the doors closing on his medical and mental health needs. Also starring Frances Conroy, Robert DeNiro, Zazie Beets and Brett Cullen.
Bong Joon-ho‘s satire-turned-horror film “PARASITE” was perhaps one of the most clever scathing indictments of economic inequality this year, and is almost sure to win this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar on the heels of its Palme d’Or at Cannes. When Bong Joon-ho accepted his Best Screenplay and Best Foreign Film Awards (shared with “ATLANTICS”) from the African-American Film Critics Association (AAFCA), he thanked Lupita Nyongo’o as the Goddess of Luck. He said that every time she shows up, he wins a prize. He also said that in South Korea they used to add subtitles to movies even though they didn’t understand all the words. Two films he subtitled were Spike Lee’s “DO THE RIGHT THING” and “JUNGLE FEVER.'” And he learned a lot, including a lot of curse words he never knew existed.
Speaking of satire, few this year proved to be as galvanizing as TIFF Ebert Director Award winner Taika Waititi’s heartrending comedy “JOJO RABBIT” about an aspiring young Nazi (Roman Griffin Davis) who befriends a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in his attic during WWII. Someone asked Waititi how he could make a “comedy” about Hitler. He said if you watch the film, it is obviously a parody and satire and that Hitler comes off looking like an idiot. Also, the most important part of the film is witnessing the transformation of the little boy who learns to think for himself about issues of bigotry and intolerance, and who learns to stand up for someone else even when it is not popular to do so.
What begins as a standard Agatha Christie-style whodunit in “KNIVES OUT” turns out to be a much more intricate and funny meditation on solving the murder mystery of a rich patriarch thanks to the cleverness of writer/director Rian Johnson, and the strange “southern” mannerisms of Daniel Craig.
6. “Clemency”, “Just Mercy” and “Dark Waters”
Alfre Woodard delivers a mesmerizing performance as a warden tasked with sending prisoners to their execution, even those whose alleged guilt is deeply in question. Aldis Hodge is equally moving as one such prisoner in Chinonye Chukwu’s Sundance prize-winning drama “CLEMENCY.”
Defense attorney Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) works to remove a wrongly accused man (Jamie Foxx) from death row in this stirring fact-based drama “JUST MERCY” from Destin Daniel Cretton. Ironically it is set in the town that inspired Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Jamie Foxx said that for him it was personal, as his stepfather was sent to prison unfairly for years for what would barely be considered a misdemeanor today. It was devastating to their family. Foxx gives another one of his focused and moving performances, and Michael B. Jordan does justice to the amazing Bryan Stevenson, who is another one of those heroes who doesn’t wear a cape.
Among the year’s most important films is Todd Haynes’ old-fashioned yet frighteningly urgent environmental drama about whistleblower Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), and his effort to take on DuPont, a corporation responsible for introducing teflon, which was found to be a poison to humans in certain doses. “DARK WATERS” is the narrative version of the also well-made documentary, “The Devil We Know.”
7. “Bombshell,” “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, “Little Women” and “The Farewell”
“BOMBSHELL,” Hollywood’s first major examination of the #MeToo movement turns its attention not to Harvey Weinstein but the equally egregious abuse of power committed by disgraced Fox News CEO Roger Ailes (played by an unrecognizable John Lithgow), while Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie portray a trio of whistleblowers under the direction of seasoned political satirist Jay Roach.
One of the award winning films at Cannes this year was Céline Sciamma’s “PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE,” a ravishing romance between a reluctant newlywed (Adèle Haenel) and the artist (Noémie Merlant) assigned to paint her portrait.
Bravo to writer/director Greta Gerwig, producer Amy Pascal and the dream cast (Laura Dern, Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson and Florence Scanlen) they’ve assembled for this bold and deeply moving adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, “LITTLE WOMEN.”
Lulu Wang‘s “THE FAREWELL” immersed us in the traditions of a Chinese family that clash with those of their daughter (Awkwafina) living in America. The grandmother is dying, but traditions dictate that she not be told. Instead, the family gathers to surround her, but under the pretext of a wedding. What is the right thing to do in this instance? Lulu Wang’s film lovingly and humorously presents both sides of the issue. (I am proud to say that Lulu Wang was previously the recipient of The Ebert Award through Project Involve at the Independent Spirit Awards.)
8. “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” “The Black Godfather” and “Hair Love”
Issues of black identity and home ownership are tackled with enormous insight and artful style in Joe Talbot’s debut feature, “THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO,” about a man (co-writer Jimmie Falls) who finds himself feeling like an outsider in his own city as he has to abandon his home due to gentrification. This film is not an by-the-numbers. It has a fresh and unusual feel.
Another stellar Netflix release this year was Reginald Hudlin’s documentary, “THE BLACK GODFATHER,” recounting the amazing true story of Clarence Avant, the entrepreneur, music executive and film producer whose efforts to empower the African-American community financially earned him that title. The film is also produced by his daughter, Nicole Avant, a former Ambassador to the Bahamas. The film won Best Documentary at the AAFCA Awards, and Mr. Avant won the Game Changer Award.
Nominated for an Academy Award this year is Matthew Cherry’s endearing animated short film, “HAIR LOVE,” about a black father’s efforts to do his daughter’s hair for the time.
9. “Us”, “Midsommar”, “Fast Color”
“US,” Jordan Peele’s follow-up to his phenomenally successful thriller “Get Out” was an equally audacious and provocative horror film about the duality of our species, with a startling performance from Lupita Nyong’o that is packed with surprises.
Ari Aster’s follow-up to “Hereditary,” entitled “MIDSOMMAR,” gripped me from beginning to end, as it explored the depression of its heroine (Florence Pugh), and how a trip to rural Sweden just might provide her with a terrifying cure.
Julia Hart’s under-seen sci-fi drama, “FAST COLOR,” also revolves around a homecoming of sorts, as a woman with superhuman abilities (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) reconnects with the family she abandoned.
10. “Pain and Glory”, “Honey Boy”, “Booksmart” and “The Souvenir”
Pedro Almodóvar has long been one of my favorite directors, and his latest work, “PAIN AND GLORY,” finds him at his most personal, featuring Antonio Banderas in an Oscar-nominated performance as a filmmaker coming to terms with the ghosts of his past. This is obviously a semi-autobiographical portrait of Almodovar himself, if only in emotions rather than actual facts. And it’s a good one!
Shia LaBeouf plays his own father in a searing personal drama of abuse and reconciliation, “HONEY BOY,” further bolstered by an amazing performance from Noah Jupe (as young Shia). This film directed by Alma Har’el is sometimes painful to watch, but is so instructive in deconstructing a life of emotional abuse and addiction, with the hope of somehow finding forgiveness and redemption.
Olivia Wilde’s comedy “BOOKSMART” proved that “good girls” can still have fun, cheerfully subverting the tropes that have long defined American teen sex comedies for generations. Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever play A+ students who kept nose to grindstone all during high school. Just as they are about to graduate they learn that the students who partied also end up gaining admittance to the same prestigious universities, and so they are desperately determined to have a blow-out night of fun at all costs.
Our cherished Ebertfest guest Tilda Swinton plays second fiddle to her daughter, Honor Swinton Byrne, who delivers a remarkable debut performance in “THE SOUVENIR,” Joanna Hogg’s achingly personal account of an unhealthy yet unforgettable love affair.
Guilty Pleasure: “Queen & Slim”
Sometimes you just get pleasure out of watching a movie even if the whole doesn’t equal the sum of its parts–you don’t care. You just get engrossed in the journey and you want to follow it all the way through, and it takes you places that even if you have been there before, you’ve never taken that gradient. And if it’s two characters are falling in love, what does the mixture of their essence add to the tale? And to tie it all together if it happens to have one of the smoothest music mixes pulling it along, yes, I want to see it. I don’t want to rate this Melina Matsoukas-directed film (with screenplay by Lena Waithe) about a young couple (Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith), who are on the run (reminiscent of “Bonnie and Clyde”). I just want to put it in the pile to watch again soon.
Worst Film of the Year: “Cats”
Roger said that no one starts off wanting to make a bad movie, and I usually agree. But how did this movie end up so wrong-headed, and so annoying! How did an Oscar-winning director like Tom Hooper forget to decide whether to make the human-scaled production design tailored to felines or actual humans? How did so much A-list talent agree to be covered in such hideous digital fur? How did anyone sign off on a desperate crowd-pleaser that fails to make a lick of sense?
And finally, FOUR Performances to take note of…
1. Renée Zellweger in “Judy”
Although I can’t put the movie on my Top Ten+ list, I agree that Renée Zellweger’s performance which channels the spirit of show business icon Judy Garland during her final days in Rupert Goold’s biopic, is worthy of Oscar recognition.
2. Octavia Spencer in “Ma”
I had so much fun watching Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer as a deceptively friendly host with malicious intentions in Tate Taylor’s thriller. This is not the Octavia Spencer we have come to know and love. She is fearless in her performance, and those eyes can alternately charm and frighten you in a flash. I can’t put the movie itself on my list, but her performance is worthy.
3. Jennifer Lopez in “Hustlers”
Jennifer Lopez first came to my attention as an actress in Gregory Nava’s film “Selena,” and it is a pleasure to watch her deliver another fine performance as a former strip club employee who decides to swindle Wall Street men of their money. She owns it.
4. Julianne Moore in “Gloria Bell”
Six years after his Chilean crowd-pleaser “Gloria” won over festival audiences, Sebastián Lelio directed an English-language remake of his own picture, and it’s a winner thanks to its endearing lead performance by Julianne Moore as a woman determined to find happiness, even if it means dancing on her own. John Turturro also gives an understated and very believable performance that exhibits real emotions of loneliness, loss and a longing for love for people over the age of forty.