The 2010s’ final revolution around the sun was full of half-baked goodbyes. The Avengers crew that inaugurated Marvel’s ubiquity hung up their bodysuits, but the franchise will probably outlive them all. “Star Wars” promos made a fuss about “The Rise of Skywalker” ending its titular hero’s saga, even though there’s more (so much more) on the galaxy’s horizon, whether or not Luke is involved. And in between discarding projects from its newly acquired 21st Century Fox slate, Disney released a trio of uninspired reboots — “Dumbo,” “Aladdin,” “The Lion King” — and bid farewell to creativity as a prevailing business model.
These movies were, or will be, massive hits, no matter their redundancies. In them, we see an industry unsure how else to thrive amid an overcrowded marketplace further veering toward streaming platforms and short-form handheld content. It was appealing, then, to watch a few greats grapple with their legacies, free from Hollywood’s intellectual-property demands.
Behind the camera, Martin Scorsese did it with “The Irishman,” Quentin Tarantino with “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Pedro Almódovar with “Pain and Glory” and the late Agnès Varda with “Varda by Agnès.” In front of the camera, Brad Pitt, Renée Zellweger, Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler, Jennifer Lopez and Shia LaBeouf asked us to reconsider how we perceive them. Their respective resurgences spoke to the power of the movie star, an endangered species in the age of comic-book dominance.
It’s been a strange year: dreadful in the first half, sneakily great in the second. What lingers most are the debates and dissension, which might be the most 2019 thing of all. Would “Joker,” a downer about a misunderstood clown who gets a gun, spark copycat violence? Are superhero movies cinema, or nah? Why were Sonic the Hedgehog’s teeth so big? Why do the cats in “Cats” have humanlike bosoms, and who decided that Jason Derulo could share billing with Judi Dench? We may never have all the answers.
But for now, I’m here to direct people to gems they might have missed and to document, however subjectively, the wonders of what the movies can still offer us. Happy watching!
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“Booksmart” should have been a major summer hit, but Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut fizzled upon arrival. Bummer. It’s a playful, progressive comedy that largely unfolds over the course of a single night, when two shrewder-than-thou high schoolers (Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever) decide they’ll finally adopt their classmates’ partying ways on the eve of graduation. Few images this year were funnier than studious BFFs covered in what they assume to be an Altoids tin’s worth of cocaine while rushing to join the popular kids they’d spent so long spurning.
15"Ready or Not"
Want to have a blast? Try “Ready or Not,” a devilish horror comedy that might as well be the result of a steamy foursome involving “Clue,” “Hereditary,” “Succession” and “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” With a searing “eat the rich” bedrock and a plucky lead performance from Samara Weaving as a bride whose wedding night descends into murder, the film never takes itself too seriously, which lends Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett's masterstroke even more bite.
Robert Eggers’ debut, “The Witch,” ranks among the decade’s horror showpieces, an eerie exploration of paranoia that shares some DNA with his follow-up, even if "The Lighthouse" is far more genre-fluid. That’s not the only thing that’s fluid: Your interpretation of this psychodrama set in 1890s New England is as good as mine. What makes it memorable is the power struggle (and latent homoeroticism) unfurling as two lightkeepers (Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson) weather a monsoon in solitude. Dafoe and Pattinson demonstrate the greatness that can happen when gifted actors are let loose to chew every morsel of scenery around them.
13"One Child Nation"
Part investigative memoir and part recent-history lesson, “One Child Nation” chronicles the staggering effects of China’s population constrictions. Nanfu Wang, who co-directed the documentary with Jialing Zhang, explores her own connection to the country’s one-child policy, in turn revealing a holocaust that spans government-mandated abortions, abandoned fetuses, twins separated at birth and the systematic policing of women’s bodies. It would be heartbreaking and vital even if the film didn’t draw comparisons to the United States' limited reproductive rights, but it’s all the more potent for doing so.
The crime genre has defined Martin Scorsese’s career. In “The Irishman," the 77-year-old director contemplates what that means. Did he glorify gangsters, or did we? What happens when crooks grow old and lonely, no longer commanding the streets like they once did? How does the world see an accomplished storyteller who sometimes gets reduced to his most lawless portrayals? This is Scorsese looking back at nearly a century of American culture with the help of his right-hand associates (Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel). In doing so, Scorsese also gazes ahead, focusing on men who must seek absolution for their misdeeds. One day soon, they may be phased out by a less patriarchal world. Scorsese explores those contours from the vantage of hindsight, redrafting his own legacy in the process.
“Divorce Story” would be an apter title for this “Kramer vs. Kramer”-esque dramedy about uncoupling in the age of consciousness. Then again, divorce doesn’t have to invalidate an entire marriage, especially when there’s a child involved. That, among other lessons, is what Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) discover in Noah Baumbach’s talky triumph. The accomplishment of “Marriage Story” stems from its ability to toss the audience back and forth between Nicole and Charlie’s differing perspectives, which are characterized by vulturous lawyers (Laura Dern! Ray Liotta!), years of shared history and the hard fact that we can never truly know another person.
No artform fuses beauty and violence more thoroughly than dance, hence why so many movies have used it as a sinister backdrop (“The Red Shoes,” “Suspiria,” “Black Swan”). In “Climax,” Argentinian provocateur Gaspar Noé serves up the beauty first, opening with an unbroken six-minute electro vignette full of the wildest moves you’ve seen since 1990's “Paris Is Burning.” What follows is a raucous all-night blowout in which the troupe unknowingly downs LSD-spiked punch and enters a psychotropic hellscape. Equal parts hilarious and horrifying, this movie won’t be everyone’s cup of booze. But for those who can stomach it, the sensory assault is electrifying.
9"Pain and Glory"
Sony Pictures Classics
Pedro Almodóvar’s movies are known for coruscating colors and lusty longings, both of which are on display in “Pain and Glory.” But he's doing something different here. A certain transcendence abounds, as if Almodóvar has finally arrived at the destination he’d been seeking all along. In doing so, he gives longtime muse Antonio Banderas a defining role as a gay film director grappling with age, health, creativity and romance. Like most of Almodóvar’s work, the story doesn’t congeal until the final moments. When it does, you’ll feel reawakened.
If Josh and Benny Safdie spend their entire careers contorting movie stars’ reputations, we’ll be better off for it. What they created with Robert Pattinson in “Good Time” was a warm-up act for “Uncut Gems,” which casts Adam Sandler as a frenzied jewel dealer in Manhattan’s Diamond District. Only an established performer with a track record of testing viewers’ patience could make such an irredeemable sleaze so likable. With their signature neon-infused hysteria, the Safdie brothers follow Sandler’s character through the bowels of New York, where elite business deals (including one involving NBA bigwig Kevin Garnett) and seedy personal affairs exist in perfect anti-harmony.
“The Farewell” started as segment on "This American Life" and became the year’s finest Sundance title. Culling from her own family history, Lulu Wang mines the complexities of maintaining a lie to benefit a loved one — a clever arrangement for this tragicomedy about an aspiring artist (Awkwafina, making a nourished dramatic debut) struggling with her relatives’ decision to conceal her Chinese grandmother’s (Zhao Shuzhen) cancer diagnosis. Wang smuggles into that premise a class drama, a wedding farce and a study in collectivism, all equally rich. Have tissues handy.
I know, I know: Another “Little Women” adaptation? Greta Gerwig knows, too. Instead of giving Louisa May Alcott’s classic a straightforward retelling, she scrambles the story and turns it into a meta reflection on authorship, femininity and the passage of time. Finding something new to say about a 151-year-old text is no easy feat. Doing so with such painterly finesse is even harder. (And bravo to her for again casting Saorise Ronan and Timothée Chalamet as would-be lovers.) Between this, “Lady Bird” and “Frances Ha,” Gerwig became the artist of her generation.
5"Portrait of a Lady on Fire"
Elegant and tender, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a French romance set at the close of the 18th century, when its heroines -- a young portraitist (Noémie Merlant) and her wealthy subject (Adèle Haenel) -- were strictly forbidden from expressing desire. For much of the film, Merlant and Haenel telegraph their flirtations through subtleties all too common to the queer experience: a glance here, a coded debate about Orpheus and Eurydice there. Director Céline Sciamma, who also challenged gender assumptions in her films “Girlhood” and “Tomboy,” treats the camera like a canvas, applying the paint delicately until it becomes a vivid mural bursting with life.
“Hustlers” announces its mission statement at the start, courtesy of Janet Jackson: “This is a story about control.” Every person in every frame is competing for power, and none of them can keep it forever. Not the Wall Street brokers robbing America, nor the strippers maxing out said criminals’ credit cards. Director Lorene Scafaria makes heroes out of the latter group, emboldened by their resourceful transgressions. For so long, women like them ranked among society’s supposed reprobates; now they get to bathe in the cash that wealthy men stole from a country too mangled to know the difference. With a catchy soundtrack, a career-best Jennifer Lopez and a script overflowing with splendid one-liners, “Hustlers” is as fun as it is smart, an increasingly rare combination for a movie that opened on more than 3,000 screens.
Gunpowder & Sky
The female psychodrama is one of cinema’s great traditions, and Elisabeth Moss — rage savant for our modern times — is the perfect performer to wear the microgenre’s crown. Playing a ‘90s punk-rock hellion who roars and rants and seethes with high-strung resentment, Moss delivered the year’s most ferocious performance. The camera in “Her Smell” is wed to her every movement, snaking through cavernous corridors as chaos follows. It’s a feat of acting complimented by haunting sound design, romping riot-grrrl anthems and a wrenching finale wherein director Alex Ross Perry uncorks the character’s trauma to unforgettable effect.
2"Once Upon a Time in Hollywood"
Here’s to Rick Fucking Dalton, has-beens, old buddies, revisionist history, the best acting you’ve ever seen in your whole life, California dreamin’, acid-dipped cigarettes, drive-in theaters, Brandy the pit bull, Musso & Frank Grill, hippie love triangles, lethal weapons, “The Wrecking Crew,” Brad Pitt shirtless on a roof, the legacy of Sharon Tate, flamethrowers, TV cowboys and Quentin Tarantino’s best movie.
Nothing comes close to the mastery of “Parasite,” Bong Joon-ho’s twisty crowd-pleaser about class dimensions in South Korea. The rare foreign film to become something of an American phenomenon, “Parasite” treats everyone as victims of capitalism’s clutches, from the struggling family living in a dank semi-basement apartment to the upscale clan who employs them. What starts as a social comedy becomes a tense thriller set amid a country — a world, really — that is robbing its population of mobility. Bong, one of the craftiest filmmakers alive, threads that needle in unpredictable ways. He disguises a deeply meaningful parable in the clothes of an electric blockbuster, proving that neither subtitles nor sophistication should be an impediment.