The year looked like a clunker until a crush of late-season entries made Oscar season magical.
Martin Scorsese picked a terrible time to trash comic book movies.
The Oscar winner mocked Marvel films earlier this year, proclaiming they weren’t “cinema.” The comments sparked a weeks-long outcry. That’s hardly shocking in our uber-sensitive age.
The ironic part? This year’s best movie hails from the pages of a DC Comic book.
Todd Phillips’ “Joker” stands as the top grossing R-rated movie of all time. It’s more than that, though. Joaquin Phoenix’s sublime performance gave us an all-new look at the supervillain mind. You didn’t have to be a Comic-Con geek to appreciate its soulful storytelling, the macabre compositions or the captivating score.
It helped, of course.
Here are the best films of 2019 in order, starting with the creme de la creme.
“All I have … are negative thoughts,” Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck tells his counselor. He’s not kidding. This tale of one man’s moral spiral is a triumph, a reboot of comic book myth that taps directly into our cultural nightmares.
Adjectives seem insufficient when it comes to Phoenix’s performance. There’s already talk of a sequel, naturally, but wouldn’t it be grand if “Joker” existed all by itself, a marvelous slice of 21st century storytelling?
You could write a book about all the ways this jet black comedy could have failed. Instead, writer/director Taika Waititi crafts a fabulous ode to humanity during the darkest of times. And did we mention it’s the funniest movie in a not-so-funny year for films?
Give co-star Sam Rockwell a smidge more screen time and he’d be a favorite to win his second Best Supporting Actor trophy. As is, he’s part of a marvelous cast down to Waititi himself as a petulant Der Fuhrer.
ONCE UPON A TIME … IN HOLLYWOOD
Director Quentin Tarantino gives us a dozen dazzling moments, if not more, per film. That doesn’t mean his movies are equal to his outsized gifts. His ode to late ’60s Hollywood, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, is one big, beautiful exception.
Where should we start? How about that confrontation between Pitt’s character and Bruce Lee (Mike Moh)? Or the extended visit to the Manson camp? Try the heartbreaking scene where DiCaprio’s struggling actor meets his artistic match — a measured pre-teen co-star.
There’s so much to savor, from the sublime production design to yet another killer soundtrack. “Hollywood” captures the very best of Tarantino without qualifiers.
Leave it to an 89-year-old legend to nail the zeitgeist better than his peers. The FBI and the media tag-teamed to make the title character’s life a living hell back in 1996. It’s like Eastwood absorbed the Fake News era, along with certain text-based love notes, and transferred it to the big screen.
This isn’t a case of a conservative film critic cheering a conservative tale for ideological reasons. “Richard Jewell” is impeccably crafted from start to finish. Bravura turns by Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell (again!) and Kathy Bates power the ultimate David vs. Goliath tale. Eastwood could have painted Jewell as a portly hero who stood tall against the government. Instead, it’s the most layered character of the year, a Mama’s boy who too snugly fit the profile the FBI craved.
NO SAFE SPACES
It’s the most important documentary you’ll see all year! It’s the movie we need now more than ever! Exhausting, right? Not this time. It’s frighteningly accurate on both counts.
Dennis Prager and Adam Carolla tour modern academia, a place where woke students can chase professors off campus for having the “wrong” opinion. Free thought is under attack, and the villains will soon enter the real world with sizable axes to grind. A trio of liberal voices, including a profound Van Jones, plead for Americans on both sides of the aisle to unite against a common foe. Sadly, too few liberals are willing to join the fight.
Director Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale”) shows us a couple going through the final stages of a failed marriage. This isn’t romantic, kind or even bittersweet. It’s a slugfest, one that will permanently wound all parties involved.
Sounds excruciating, right? Oh, it is. It’s also beautifully realized, raw and delicately rendered. A dash of dark humor lightens the mood, but only by a few degrees. Both Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are sensational as ex-partners clinging to the last shards of their relationship.
The best art affirms life even when we see humanity at its worst. Baumbach’s latest proves just that, even when the couple’s lawyers go for the jugular.
Remember the names Kelvin Harrison, Jr. and Trey Edward Shults. The star and the creator of “Waves” have bold, bright futures, but it’s the here and now that’s equally thrilling.
Harrison plays a high school athlete who has it all – a beautiful girlfriend, doting parents and talent to burn. Sometimes that isn’t enough, as we learn after a serious of body blows sends his plans dramatically off course. It’s just the beginning of a story that stretches across a family in chaos.
Shults takes some creative risks at every step, and his instincts prove true with every tough call.
TOY STORY 4
It’s a cash grab! No, it’s a corporate no brainer! It’s all of that, of course, plus another remarkable example of Pixar being Pixar. And when it comes to animated stories, nobody does it better. Still.
The old toy gang returns, of course, but this tale offers bright new heroes we can’t wait to see again. Plus, “Toy Story 4” blends sight gags for all ages with a third act twist just for the adults. What more could you want?
A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
Fred Rogers takes a back seat to a grumpy journalist who thinks the TV star is beneath his talents. That angle makes “A Beautiful Day” hard to embrace at first.
Be patient. Tom Hanks is pitch perfect as the man in the red cardigan sweater, revealing a flesh and blood human beneath that aw, shucks exterior. Matthew Rhys trusts the audience to rally to his journalist character’s side, and it’s well worth the effort. Plus, Chris Cooper excels as the journalists’ dad, a role tailor made for cliches that never arrive.
FORD v FERRARI
Oscar-bait films too often come in one, predictable flavor. It’s tasty, all right, but it can be a bit tiresome. It’s why James Mangold’s fact-based story is such a treat. It’s got all the bells and whistles of an awards contender, but gosh is it a gas.
Christian Bale lands the flashier role of Ken Miles, the race car driver who steers Ford into the ultimate grudge match against Ferrari Motors. Matt Damon is his boss, protecting him from Ford’s snarling bureaucrats.
Their bond is fascinating but tricky to process, and the final race at Le Mans is as good as you hope it’ll be. Throw in a nod to capitalism in all its imperfect glory, and you’ve got enough for several viewings.
Honorable Mention: “Breakthrough,” “The Irishman,” “Dolemite Is My Name.”