I never thought I’d say this three months ago, but when I look back at what I saw this year, I realize there are more good movies now than ever before — certainly more than ten years ago. Of course there are more bad ones too and it’s a worrisome sign that so much of the box office goes to comic book adaptations that seem to tell the same story over and over.
The big news this year is the rise of Netflix and Amazon Prime, which is increasingly blurring the lines between cinema and television. This creates a bit of a quandary when it comes to ranking: what to include? For this year at least, I am including any movie that was released on a big screen even if I saw it at home on a streaming service. Mostly, though, I do try to get out to see movies as they were meant to be seen — outside the house — and I feel that the effort for the good ones (“The Irishman” this year, “Roma” last year) is worth it.
Another ongoing trend is the many movies that are supposedly based on real events. I saw nine of them this year (and that doesn’t include the documentaries) and in every single case I came home and fired up Google to see what was true and what wasn’t. Come on Hollywood. Make up your own stories, instead of stealing someone else’s life and changing it around to make it more interesting.
1. One Upon a Time in Hollywood
I was so bowled over by this fairy tale about late Sixties Hollywood that I saw it twice. It’s visually arresting, better at capturing what it was like to be alive in 1969 than anything made since 1969. I usually stay away from Tarantino movies because of the violence, but for once the mayhem was cathartic and justified.
2. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
When I went into the theater I never expected to come out ranking the last of the Skywalker movies this high. And yes, the the first half of the film was kid of dull and it has plot problems so extreme that I cannot now recount 95 percent of what happened, but I do remember that I was emotionally drained at the end. We were so wiped out we stayed through every last credit, until the blank screen came up. I do recognize, that this movie undoes much of what was established in “The Last Jedi,” and to that I say: good.
3. The Irishman
Slow and long but absorbing when seen on the big screen. I imagine viewers might be easily distracted while watching on Netflix, which is why the traditional movie experience is better than one in the living room. Another remarkable recreation of the Sixties, almost of par with “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” It’s also very male. I don’t have a problem with that, but some do.
“Parasite” is the most original, genre-bending movie of the last five years, and not just because it’s Korean, a culture about which most of Western viewers know little. Going to see this is an experience that you won’t want to have “spoiled,” so I hope it’s not going to far to say that the first half is an amusing domestic comedy and the second half is a thriller, kind of. And what, or who, is the parasite, you may ask? The answer is: every character in this movie.
5. The Farewell
This movie is based on a story from “This American Life,” which I listened to when it aired. In a way this is a good antidote to “Crazy Rich Asians.” Both concern themselves with what members of extended Chinese families, some of whom have emigrated and some of whom stayed behind, owe each other. But one is a fantasy and one is reality-based. The family dynamics at work here seem true to life regardless of your ethnicity, though.
6. Where’d You Go Bernadette?
Bernadette is depressed, by what we don’t know until the end, although being a strikingly original person doesn’t help. Fortunately she’s married to a Google big shot, who’s sensitive and supportive as well as rich. Cate Blanchette is great, as usual, as a famous architect who’s dropped out of her career and needs to recover her passion. A surprisingly thrilling ending.
7. The Two Popes
You wouldn’t think a movie that boils down to a long conversation between two celibate septuagenarians would be so fascinating, but there you have it. Popes Benedict and Francis debate theology, guilt, humanity, and leadership in some of the most beautiful Roman locations I’ve ever seen. Alas, most of it is made up but it’s still really thought-provoking. (Although I have to be honest, when I saw this in the movie theatre, there was only one other person that my wife and I and she left half-way through.)
8. Richard Jewell
This is Clint Eastwood’s taut, well-told story about the attempted framing by the FBI of the security guard who discovered and warned authorities to the bomb that would eventually explode at the 1996 Olympics, thereby saving numerous lives. It’s funny that out of all the true-life stories depicted in the movies this year, many of which depart significantly from the facts, this is the one that the media are claiming foul over because they don’t like the way the portrayal of the reporter who first smeared Richard Jewell.
9. Little Women
Great adaptation by Greta Gerwig of the Louisa May Alcott novel. I’d be more than happy if Saoirse Ronan won best actress Oscar this year. My only hesitation with this film is that the timeframe flips back and forth so much that it’s hard to tell what period we’re in. I pity any husband or boyfriend dragged to this who hasn’t read the book and can’t figure out what the heck is going on.
10. Knives Out
A fun whodunnit that would make Agatha Christie proud. This is something that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren would LOVE if they actually had a sense of humor. The One Percent are HORRIBLE.
11. Ad Astra
Brad Pitt is an astronaut with daddy issues — a space cowboy who bends or outright breaks the rules in order to save earth. Good action sequences.
12. Ford v Ferrari
Now that Daniel-Day Lewis has retired Christian Bale is the most actorly Hollywood movie star, really inhabiting each new role. Here he’s a wild man auto racer hire by semi-wild man Matt Damon to win the LeMans car race for Henry Ford II. The car races are fine but the moral dilemma posed by the need to compromise within bureaucratic institutions is the most interesting part of the movie.
13. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Someone else has daddy issues — the Esquire reporter hired to interview Mr. Rogers. Tom Hanks is perfect as the man in the red cardigan sweater. The movie tried to pull at the heart strings but doesn’t succeed as completely as the Mr. Rogers documentary that came out last year, but still, this is very sweet and worth seeing.
14. The Downton Abbey Movie
Not really a movie — more two episodes of the TV series smooshed together and inflated for the big screen. As usual, the plots are preposterous, although not as lame as the story in the TV show about Mr. Bates being a murder suspect. The production values are taken up a notch, though, with all that Hollywood funding, so it’s visually luscious. Just go and turn your brain off.
This is a more ambitious and thoughtful bio-pic than “Bohemian Rhapsody” but not as much fun. (They’re both about closeted British rock superstars who burn the candle at both ends.) Maybe it’s just that Elton John songs don’t translate as well to the Big Screen at Queen’s?
This was supposed to be the girl’s version of “Superbad,” but it lacks the courage of its tasteless and hilarious precursor. The premise is that two nose-to-the-grindstone high school seniors try to have a blast on their last night of high school. It’s funny but not a riot and the plot elements are a little absurd.
17. Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice
A great documentary about Linda Ronstadt. I was never a big fan, although I don’t know why not, now having seen how remarkable her career was and finally appreciating her voice.
18. Late Night
Mindy Kaling, who also wrote this somewhat acerbic depiction of late night television, plays the first female staff writer for a talk show starring a burned out Emma Thompson, who shows little solidarity with her own gender. Very witty and knowing about TV writers’ rooms, but it never quite takes off. And like “Booksmart” (see above) it’s burdened with a convoluted and pretty implausible plot.
Perhaps my expectations for this were too high but this was a bit of a letdown. It’s perfectly enjoyable — what movie about Beatles songs wouldn’t be? — but even within the internal logic of the film, it doesn’t quite add up. “Yesterday” posits an alternative universe in which there are no Beatles, aside from one man who remembers them from his original world. And yet in the new world everything is the same, which doesn’t make sense because the Beatles literally changed modern culture. Definitely worth seeing but keep your expectations in check.
20. Toy Story 4
After the highly emotional and tear-jerking conclusion of Toy Story 3, no one needed another sequel. This is fine as a standalone movie but somehow the antic thrills and near escapes don’t have the same emotional resonance as they once did.
21. My Name is Dolemite
Saw it on Netflix instead of the theater and maybe I would have been more captivated if I had seen it on the big screen. It’s a remarkable story about a dreamer and self-believer who somehow makes a hit comedy record and then a series of cheesy movies that appeal to Black audiences. A classic American story, in fact. It’s nice to see Eddie Murphy back too.,
22. El Camino
A sequel to “Breaking Bad” that picks up five minutes after the end of the TV series. Although released as a movie, this is a lot like “Downton Abbey” in that it’s really a two-hour TV episode masquerading as a feature film. It’s very well-done but if you are not extremely well-versed in the “Breaking Bad” universe or don’t have a photographic memory of a show that ended six years ago, it can be tough to pick up the nuances.
23. Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love
A documentary about Leonard Cohen and the beautiful woman who was his “muse” and girlfriend when he transformed from a impecunious novelist living on a romantic Greek island to a world famous rock star. He moved on, she didn’t really. Leonard comes across as the classic self-absorbed jerk artist that everyone forgives because he’s so darned sexy and talented. This movie did make me want to move to a Greek island, though.
My expectations were a bit too high for this and I ended up being bored. I was amazed at what great shape Jennifer Lopez is in and I appreciated that the film doesn’t try to make gender or class heroes of these women, who first drug, then steal from guys they pick up at a strip club. Still, it’s hard to sympathize with anyone in the movie, which implies that everyone is always hustling everyone else.
Cute. I always enjoy a boy-trapped-in-a-man’s-body movie. But I forgot almost everything about it an hour after I left the theater. The only comic book movie I saw this year.
26. Amazing Grace
This is ranked last but it’s not a bad movie. Back in 1972, Sydney Pollock filmed Aretha Franklin performing at a Baptist church in Los Angeles, but for various technical and legal reasons it wasn’t released until after she died. Aretha’s great, of course, but I did feel like I was watching somebody’s home movie.