1. AVENGERS: ENDGAME
True, Martin Scorsese said comic book movies are nothing but theme parks…but, WHAT a theme park. And though it may not even count as cinema for some people, this climactic installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Infinity saga (three phases and nearly two dozen separate films in the making) somehow managed to stick the landing of a ridiculously complex story far better than countless other deep pocket bread and circus Hollywood rivals (from the D.C. and “Star Wars” juggernauts to “Game of Thrones”) with a weird, well-paced amalgam of caper flick and war movie while still working in easy humor, unexpected twists, and effective emotional payoffs. It may not be art in the estimation of some viewers but it’s certainly an astonishing achievement of craft more successful on its own terms than many far more flawed critics’ darlings of 2019.
2. FOR SAMA
And now for something completely different: a harrowing true life eyewitness chronicle of life (and gruesome death) in the city of Aleppo from the initial student protests against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad through the brutal civil war that followed. In the middle of it all is filmmaker Waad al-Kateab, whose home videos of her sweet friendship and eventual marriage to a local doctor transform over time into a nightmare of bloody floors in a decimated clinic where medical staffers risk their lives treating the victims of constant bombing raids against the civilian population. The imagery of raw grief and gruesome carnage is agonizing to watch, creating a relentless backbeat of anxiety for the safety of those wielding and captured on camera (including the filmmaker’s own infant daughter, Sama) — yet al-Kateab (and co-director Edward Watts) have shaped the footage into a narrative about the resilience, humanity, love, and even humor shared by neighbors, friends, and family either stranded in the hellish scenario or determined to stay and support the resistance against a dictator with no compunctions against killing his own people.
3. LITTLE WOMEN
After six previous cinematic adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved tale of family and sisterhood, Greta Gerwig more than justifies a seventh go-round with her time-hopping screenplay goosing the pace and effectively counterpointing the action, cleverly underscoring the inherent themes of female empowerment, most notably in a meta subplot of one of the titular women (Saoirse Ronan) writing the tale that’s unfolding onscreen. As a director, Gerwig creates painterly visuals (with the aid of cinematographer Yorick Le Saux) while bringing contemporary verve and naturalism to the 19th century material without the performances of her outstanding cast seeming anachronistic or gimmicky. How she and her film weren’t recognized for Golden Globe consideration (outside of Ronan’s performance) is a mystery and an oversight which hopefully won’t be repeated when Oscar nominations are announced.
4. THE FAREWELL
Another perfectly balanced gem of semi-autobiographical family drama and comedy, writer/director Lulu Wang’s charming, low-key feature confirms the movie star chops of Awkwafina as a Chinese-American navigating cultural and generational tensions during a fake wedding in Changchun orchestrated to prevent her grandmother from learning she has terminal cancer as her extended family visits the sweet old lady (and former gun-toting Mao revolutionary) one last time.
5. UNCUT GEMS
Speaking of gems, Oscar buzz, and Scorsese (here lending his support as executive producer to a new generation of maverick filmmakers), in a follow-up to their unpredictable, raw nerve 2017 double espresso shot of a crime film, “Good Time,” Joshua and Benjamin Safdie redirect the manic rage just below the surface of Adam Sandler’s comic persona into a visceral depiction of a life constantly cranked to 11 by addiction (in this case to gambling, adrenaline, and the capitalist crack of more, more, more at any cost). That constant intensity (though no doubt merely headache-inducing for some viewers) creates an atmosphere of nonstop dread and nervous laughter akin to breathless onlookers watching a man walk a tightrope between skyscrapers in a hurricane.
6. J.R. “BOB” DOBBS & THE CHURCH OF THE SUB-GENIUS
Many people are familiar with the ’50s-style clip art image of a smiling white man smoking a pipe associated with something called the Church of the Sub-Genius, but documentarian Sandy K. Boone dives deep into a movement with adherents ranging from Nick Offerman and Penn Jillette to its inadvertent founders, Reverend Ian Stang and Dr. Philo Drummond. What started as a parody of illustrated Jack Chick fire and brimstone religious tracts unexpectedly grew into a secret society of irreverent weirdos in the pre-internet Reagan era…before “weird” became mainstream, anti-establishment rebellion helped to get Donald Trump elected president, and each Sub-Genius found themselves questioning whether or not to distance themselves from an “us vs. them” philosophy with a lot of grey area between put-on and reality.
7. ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD
Quentin Tarantino’s uneven, overlong, yet loving and often brilliant tribute to the ’60s pop culture he loves and the people who created it features one of the most suspenseful sequences of his career (a bold statement, to paraphrase “Pulp Fiction”) and, later, one of the most primal and (arguably) satisfying scenes of violence in his filmography. The heart of the movie is the friendship between a has-been leading man and his ne’er-do-well stunt double and, even more importantly, the easygoing chemistry of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, respectively, in those roles — but the rest of OUATIH’s best scenes rely on a wistful tribute to starlet Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), a wised-up child star (Julia Butters), and a passel of scary-ass Manson girls (including, most notably, Margaret Qualley, Lena Dunham, and Dakota Fanning).
8. THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO
“Fuck San Francisco” but also “You don’t get to hate it unless you love it” are lines sure to resonate with past (and especially former) residents of the Bay City, Boston, Austin, Brooklyn, and other distinctive communities cannibalized by gentrification and reconstituted as Hard Rock Cafe simulacrums packed with empty investment properties in a life-size game of Monopoly for players who don’t need the money. Jimmie Fails stars as a semi-autobiographical version of himself in this lyrical, visually stunning indie (directed by his long-time friend and Mission District native Joe Talbot) about a young man on the verge of homelessness while his childhood home sits empty.
9. THE LIGHTHOUSE
Men and storms rage throughout “The Lighthouse” though very little actually happens (and we’re not even sure how much of what does is real and how much is psychotic hallucination). Yet, as with his previous feature, “The VVitch,” director Robert Eggers (co-scripting the screenplay here with his brother, Max) brings such indelible style and tension to his depictions of life within claustrophobic historical settings that the plot (almost) doesn’t matter — especially when the anachronistic dialogue is barked, growled, and declaimed by the astonishing Willem Dafoe as a grizzled old lighthouse keeper with the ferocity of an Old Testament prophet of doom.
10. THE IRISHMAN
And finally, this list comes full circle with another respected auteur revisiting past obsessions in yet another overlong, uneven, melancholy and frequently brilliant magnum opus that feels like a summation of a career if not a final curtain call. Chronicling the friendship between a mob enforcer (Robert DeNiro) and labor boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) as well as several decades of American underworld history (including the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Kennedy assassination), Martin Scorsese removes every shred of glamour from the world of organized crime while capturing perhaps the last big screen performance of the ever mesmerizing Joe Pesci (humorously cast against type here as the mob epic’s calm voice of reason).
Wild Cards (potentially list-worthy 2019 films as yet unseen by moi): Richard Jewell, Ad Astra, 1917, Hustlers, Queen & Slim.
Honorable Mention: Becoming Leslie, Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story, Sword of Trust, Pizza: A Love Story, Knock Down the House, Rocketman, Good Boys, Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles, Judy, Downton Abbey, Dolemite, Ford v. Ferrari, Parasite, Knives Out, Bombshell, Marriage Story, The Two Popes
Memorable Moments of 2019: The “Booksmart” doll scene, the baby that lives in “For Sama,” the surprise twist of a heroic condo developer actually trying to keep Austin weird in “Nothing Stays the Same: The Story of the Saxon Pub,” the surprise death and the climactic “Avengers assemble!” moment of “Endgame,” levitating Elton John and the big “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting” production number in “Rocketman,” every Tilda Swinton scene in “The Dead Don’t Die,” every second of the Spahn Ranch sequence in “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood,” “The Farewell”‘s epilogue, the “Fiddler” flash mob at Lin-Manuel Miranda’s wedding reception, Renee Zellweger’s performance (and especially her final number) in “Judy,” the Dowager Countess passing the “scary old lady” torch to Mary in “Downton Abbey,” “The Lighthouse”‘s one-eyed seagull, the fish in the car scene in “The Irishman,” Anthony McCarten’s fantastic dialogue about Catholic faith and dogma in the screenplay of “The Two Popes,” the surprising acting chops of Kevin Garnett (and the welcome big screen return of Eric Bogosian) in “Uncut Gems.”
Worst Movie I Didn’t See: “The Rise of Skywalker”
I loved the original “Star Wars” (NOT the bastardized George Lucas “Special Edition”) more than any movie in my life — and while I didn’t love “The Empire Strikes Back” or “The Return of the Jedi” quite as much, I still really, really liked them (along with 2018’s “Solo,” of all things). I was disappointed by the much reviled “prequel” trilogy, which at least had some interesting ideas (especially the clear and subversive critique of the George W. Bush administration and the killer line, “So, this is how liberty dies…with thunderous applause”) in the really quite good and underrated “Revenge of the Sith”). But the generally terrible, nonsensical fan fiction plotting and dialogue of “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi” pushed me to a previously unthinkable decision to just simply skip Episode IX, especially after a friend and long-time, continuing fan of the series advised me, “I predict you will hate the new ‘Star Wars’ flick from the very first line of the crawl” — which, based on everything I’ve seen and read, was unquestionably a correct prediction.
Maybe Just A Wee Bit Overrated: “Booksmart,” “Us” & “Knives Out”
Yes, “Booksmart” is like a Judd Apatow movie with two female leads, a female director, and female writers…but doesn’t that make it just a female Judd Apatow movie as opposed to some masterpiece of feminist cinema? And, yes, “Get Out” was amazing and Jordan Peele’s sophomore feature was interesting and fun, but isn’t it possible to admire his talent and enjoy his work while still admitting Act 3 of “Us” was a total mess that didn’t make the slightest bit of sense? And while “Knives Out” was a fun take on the whodunnit genre, I’m a little baffled why it’s on so many Top 10 lists (especially when, for instance, Daniel Craig’s Southern drawl is so theatrically over-the-top I assumed it was part of an obviously fake persona that would eventually be discarded about halfway through the movie).