As I get on in my movie-going career, I find that more and more I want to enjoy myself when I go out to see a film (or, less often, stream one at home). Yes, it’s good to be intellectually challenged or recognize great craftsmanship, and those qualities are both included in selections below; but if something can make me smile for 90-120 minutes, I’m willing to overlook, say, triviality of subject or, perhaps, lack of originality. So, I offer apologies at the outset to Marriage Story, 1917, Little Women, The Irishman and Parasite, for reasons spelled out in my reviews. They were each, undoubtedly, expertly acted and executed, and perfectly fulfilled a director’s admittedly interesting vision. They didn’t grab me, however, and, for different reasons, left me with questions and complaints, not satisfaction. Some of this may be attributable to the advance notice that each of these Oscar nominees had received before I saw them. In any case, I will not contend that the following list comprises the “ten best” movies of 2019. They are just the ten I would most gladly recommend; the ten I enjoyed the most.
1. The Two Popes. If the meek are to inherit the earth, the Papacy is a good place to start. This movie had a startlingly current subject, two of the best performances of the year, gorgeous visuals and provocative thoughts on faith, theology, politics, history, culture, humanity and probably more. The scenes of Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce alone together were, to me, the cinematic highlight of the year.
1A. Never Look Away. (A 2018 release, so not on any lists this year, but not seen in Santa Barbara in time for my 2018 Top Ten.) The best film about an artist I’ve ever seen, plus it’s a searing look at Nazi-era Germany and a charming love story. With six strong performances, the movie kept growing and getting richer over its fly-by three hours.
2. Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood. An amusement-park ride of a movie, a paean to Hollywood filmdom and a loving recasting of a time and place. There was nothing serious here, but each new scene was its own bonbon, and the mastery of Quentin Tarantino was evident in every shot, every song, every performance. Brad Pitt was never better, and LDC fit in with the fun.
3. First Love. A Japanese gangster-romance that melded classic samurai-movie types with a love affair of two innocents out of their depth. Nothing here might be original in Japan, but it was refreshing and new in New York and I smiled with delight all the way through.
4. Pain and Glory. Nothing funny here, but painfully soul-bearing and honest. You had to admire and respect the way that Pedro Almodovar and Antonio Banderas made art out of a dark view of the director’s life.
5. Transit. A mystery thriller set in a modern-day Nazi occupation that kept you guessing, thinking and feeling, from the German director Christian Petzold, who has made this list with three films in a row.
6. Long Shot/Late Night. I’m combining two underrated pleasures, based on the commanding performances of Charlize Theron and Emma Thompson and their goofy humor. The Late Night setup was a tad more realistic, but you didn’t have to buy into the stories to enjoy the side characters and the funny one-liners.
7. The Sound of My Voice. A sweet documentary about Linda Ronstadt that so happens to have all my favorite ’70s California rockers playing and reminiscing alongside. What’s wrong with bathing nostalgia in golden haze?
8. Yesterday. Lightweight, yes, and as improbable as any sci-fi story, but so goodhearted and filled with such fun music (and I’m not a Beatles fan!), that I could just sit back and enjoy Lily James and Kate McKinnon.
9. Knives Out. A devilishly tongue-in-cheek whodunit with scores of clues that ultimately hung together, all the while giving the first-rate cast scenery to chew en route to a happy ending.
10. Ford v. Ferrari. An old-fashioned, conventional Hollywood drama with good guys, bad guys, personal relationships, car races and a bittersweet ending, all actually based on fact. Plus, Christian Bale is fantastic.
Elsewhere, I have handed out my Oscar selections; unusually, I don’t have to go far outside the official nominees to find my favorites. At this point I also like to make special mention of somewhat-acclaimed movies that I couldn’t stand: The Farewell, Booksmart, Judy and Hustlers.