I know there are people who resist acknowledging the fact that Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood was the best movie of 2019, but why? Quentin Tarantino's script is a gem of so many facets (virtuoso plotting and dialogue, resonant movie-biz nostalgia), and the film's charisma-bomb cast (Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Margot Robbie, plus step-up stars Julia Butters and Margaret Qualley) is so powerfully synched, that the picture's 161 minutes of buddy banter, hippie-bashing and sly foot worship simply breeze by. Could the film have been tightened up a little? Sure—but then you'd be left with less of the best movie of the year. (I await the four-hour version, myself.)
For many people, I gather, the best movie of 2019 was not Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, but instead The Irishman, or maybe Joker, Parasite, Marriage Story, 1917. These are all worthy films, and impossible to rank, really. The Irishman has several memorable Scorsese moments (some involving ice cream, some pajamas) and a masterfully controlled performance by Joe Pesci; but the movie's a little creaky, and with a three and a half hour runtime, it really is too long. 1917, meanwhile, is an admirable piece of work, but somewhat underwhelming. The technical conceit of presenting the movie as if it had been shot in one long take isn't much more than a gimmick—although closing off the possibility of narrative detours did enable director Sam Mendes to create a pure antiwar movie, focusing on one dismal thing after another. The lead actors, Dean-Charles Chapman (Game of Thrones) and George McKay, are fine as two soldiers assigned a crucial and very dangerous mission, but their renown as performers stops somewhat short of universal and you can imagine pressure being brought to bear on Mendes to inject some star power into this $100-million picture—thus the miniscule, tacked-on appearances by Colin Firth, Andrew Scott and Benedict Cumberbatch. This unwieldy casting has an air of commercial desperation about it, and as fascinating as it is to follow the great cinematographer Roger Deakins as he trails the two young soldiers through an endless landscape of bombed-out properties and scattered horse corpses, the message at the end—about the grim futility of war—is one you already know.
Joker, Parasite and Marriage Story are no-brainer flick picks. Joker really is a movie unlike any other—certainly any other comic-book movie. Credit to Todd Phillips for bold vision; to the Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir for her dark, tidal score; and to Joaquin Phoenix for a performance that's equal parts heartbreak and nightmare.
Parasite is one of Korean director Bong Joon-ho's sharpest and most entertaining films, an examination of a very poor family that devises a way to infiltrate the lifestyle of a very rich one. Bong's class-war political take is familiar, but the movie is smart and funny, and pretty much every turn in its twisty story is a surprise, sometimes a bloody one. (The movie is so solidly constructed that not a lot of people are likely to be defeated by its subtitles.)
Marriage Story might seem from its trailer like a bare-bones downer, but it has the excitement and the wonder of two deeply attuned actors (Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver) creating peak performances under the guidance of a gifted director (Noah Baumbach). (This should be an interesting Oscar season in the household Baumbach shares with writer, director and actor Greta Gerwig, who's having a major moment of her own with the new Little Women—another terrific 2019 film.)
Then there are New York's Safdie brothers, whose Uncut Gems is a blast of urban frenzy and a wonderfully scuzzy showcase for Adam Sandler, who plays a far-gone Diamond District hustler who's in hock to some very dangerous people. The picture is like being trapped in a speeding ambulance, and you'll never look at the Sandman the same way again.
Of the movies I liked more than loved last year, let me first salute Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe for their fearless work in Robert Eggers's squalid character study, The Lighthouse—a beautifully made black-and-white picture that I wish added up to a little bit more than nothing. Another visual coup, Ari Aster's Midsommar, gets points for its blazing look—it's a sunbaked folk-horror item with an unusual amount of bear-consciousness. Unfortunately, despite a really creepy scene in a sort of rural fire lodge, this film is nowhere near as terrifying as Aster's debut, Hereditary, which is a serious letdown.
An even bigger disappointment was the mopey Ad Astra, a deep-think space movie in which Brad Pitt looks as emptied-out as I felt watching it. I don't understand the hype about Lorene Scafaria's Hustlers—it doesn't seem like that big a deal. And despite the warm presence of Scarlett Johansson, I didn't much care for Jojo Rabbit. I just don't think Hitler is funny. I know, I know: The Producers. But Jojo suggests that we can beat back the power of evil by laughing at it. I believe Charlie Chaplin tried this. I don't recall it working.