The final screening for movie critics in 2019 was “Cats,” the much-derided adaptation of the Broadway musical. What a way to go out.
If you’re one of those people that believe that everything happens for a reason, and that meaning can be derived from the simplest daily events, you might say this was a purr-fect way to end a crazy year. Me, I take it as confirmation of the randomness of the universe — a parting gag, a little hairball at the end to usher out a bizarre year.
The best movies of 2019 were an impressive bunch, overall. I can’t complain about a year in which two of Hollywood’s signature filmmakers, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, made big-canvas movies that brilliantly hit their targets.
Other hopeful signs included a series of strong films directed by women, including the last wide release of the year, Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women,” which ought to clean up during the holidays. Foreign films continued to struggle to get seen, but the Korean film “Parasite” has become a rarity, a foreign-language hit that will likely get nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.
The dominant off-screen story was the way Disney continued to swagger across the movie landscape, perhaps to the Darth Vader theme from “Star Wars” (which it owns). The company swallowed up a famous Hollywood studio (Twentieth Century Fox), ruled the multiplex with its superhero and animated sequels, and launched a streaming service aimed directly at Netflix and similar providers.
We’ll all be wearing Mickey Mouse ears in 10 years, assuming theaters still exist. By that time you may be watching movies through the chip implanted in your head.
Maybe by then, they’ll have invented an alternative to the 10 Best list. But for now, here are my most exhilarating movies of 2019, and 10 of the worst. A bottle of Joaquin Phoenix’s green hair dye to the following:
1. “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” Tarantino puts it all together in this funny, lyrical, violent ode to the peculiar L.A. vibe of 1969. It moves like no other film, and Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt have never been better. The devil is in the details, which Tarantino gets amazingly right, and the devil also lives on a ranch just outside town…
2. “The Irishman.” Three and a half hours of a mob story, but not like the other gangster films Martin Scorsese has made. This one is all about futility, and the price paid for living a life without qualities. And it doesn’t matter how much you digitally de-age Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, or Joe Pesci — they still shine with actorly craft.
3. “The Souvenir.” A recollection of a love affair between a film student and a troubled man, based on director Joanna Hogg’s own life story. As a fictionalized memoir, it’s remarkably unsentimental, a collection of memories selected for a very precise impact.
4. “Parasite.” Bong Joon-ho’s widely-acclaimed film comes on like a screwball comedy and shifts into horror halfway through, all the while serving up tart political satire. It may have the best ensemble cast of the year, too.
5. “Atlantics.” This mysterious African film begins as a story of two lovers separating, then becomes … nope, the developments in this atmospheric story are too unexpected to spoil. It’s the debut feature by director Mati Diop.
6. “Midsommar.” I’m a sucker for ambitious horror films, so Ari Aster’s follow-up to “Hereditary” was up my alley. It’s a slow-burner about college students visiting a Nordic commune during an extremely strange ceremonial rite. Florence Pugh (a breakout in “Little Women”) leads the cast.
7. “Peterloo.” Britain’s Mike Leigh (“Secrets & Lies”) is a consistently serious and political filmmaker, but rarely with the kind of budget that Amazon gave him to play with here. This account of an 1819 domestic massacre is fittingly powerful, yet with touches of Monty Python strewn about.
8. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” Another 19th-century story, this time about an artist hired to paint a portrait who finds herself entranced by her subject. Director Celine Sciamma previously did the lovely “Girlhood.”
9. “The Nightingale.” This story about a woman seeking revenge in colonial Australia is hard to watch at times, so intense is its violence. But that is part of the point of Jennifer Kent’s uncompromising movie, which makes the point that this is not the era for decorum.
10. “Booksmart.” This teen comedy goes in the books as a box-office flop, but its zingy style makes it a classic of the genre. Kudos to first-time director Olivia Wilde and stars Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever.
The next 10: “Toy Story 4” and its strangely moving finale; “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” a poetic elegy for a city; Pedro Almodovar’s fine “Pain and Glory;” a fascinating four-hour Chinese film, “An Elephant Sitting Still;” the survival film “Arctic,” with a heroic Mads Mikkelsen performance; the impressive long-take approach of the World War I tale “1917” (opens locally in January); “Little Women” and its portrait of a budding artist; Jim Jarmusch’s meta zombie picture “The Dead Don’t Die;” Marielle Heller’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” which had distinctive touches and a committed Tom Hanks performance; and the unsung black comedy “The Art of Self-Defense.”
Let us now mention the 10 worst movies of the year, and then speak no more of them.
1. “Serenity.” This is either the worst movie of the year or some kind of alternate-reality masterpiece. Either way, Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway get badly embarrassed by this tropical film noir.
2. “Dark Phoenix.” An X-Men installment, but with the fun drained out. My review said it “manages to turn every scene into a showdown of bad dialogue.”
3. “Dumbo.” How Tim Burton got from his delightfully cracked early films to this Disney live-action remake is a mystery. And I didn’t believe an elephant could fly.
4. “The Goldfinch,” and 5. “The Art of Racing in the Rain.” Two adaptations of best-selling novels released within a week of each other, each absolutely murdering whatever was appealing on the page. At least “The Goldfinch” doesn’t have a talking dog.
6. “The Intruder.” This one’s bad, but at least there’s entertainment value in its hammering jump scares, as a happily over-acting Dennis Quaid menaces the young couple who have just purchased his house.
7. “Angel Is Fallen.” These Gerard Butler movies could go on forever at this point, and if their star can only stay hydrated, they just might. Bonus points to this one for reviving the great Nick Nolte for duty.
8. “Pet Sematary.” Thanks to “It,” Stephen King adaptations are coming back, but this remake provided a dour exercise in making bad decisions.
9. “Last Christmas.” It’s dumb, but I generally enjoyed this time-killer, which gives cute starring roles to Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding. Then you get to the plot twist, and oh boy: that’s an automatic 10 Worst violation.
10. “The Hustle.” A remake of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” with Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson as con artists. A movie so inept it makes the French Riviera look homely.