We kept hearing how divided the nation is, but at the movies in 2019, the walls have been falling down.
The once-unbreachable wall between theatrical films and streaming titles, already weakened last year with the awards success of “Roma,” took more hits from the likes of Martin Scorsese (“The Irishman”) and Noah Baumbach (“Marriage Story”). “Roma” also put some holes in the notion that movies not in English couldn’t succeed stateside — something Cannes winners “Parasite” and “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” seemed to disprove as American audiences and critics embraced them.
Everyone, save a few purists, agreed that they liked movies about Marvel superheroes (“Avengers: Endgame,” “Captain Marvel”) and DC villains (“Joker”). Everyone waited with anticipation for the final chapter of the Skywalker saga that began 42 years earlier with “Star Wars” — even if the movie itself was a disappointment. And everyone could agree “Cats” was just plain weird.
There were some great movies in 2019, stories that took us to Korea and China, to 18th century France and mid-20th century Detroit, to a rock star’s decline and a mission to the moon. Here are my choices for the top 10 movies of 2019:
1. “Parasite” • A family of poor con artists insinuate themselves in the lives of a rich Seoul family, taking servants’ jobs through means fair and foul — only to find out there’s a deeper secret within the walls of the opulent house. Director Bong Joon-Ho’s modern-day thriller is a bloody mystery, a precisely observed family drama, and a sly but sharp commentary on the haves and the have-nots. (Now in theaters.)
2. “The Irishman” • The late-career work we’ve been waiting for Martin Scorsese to make recounts the memories of fixer and hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro). His tales of working through the Philly mob and becoming a confidante of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) are fascinating, even if they might be historically suspect. With a cast led by De Niro, Pacino and an out-of-retirement Joe Pesci, Scorsese builds on his gangster-movie reputation to create a searing drama and a meditation on the grave that awaits us all. (Streaming on Netflix.)
3. “Her Smell” • Meet Becky Something, a punk-rock queen who’s spiraling out of control — and writer-director Alex Ross Perry takes us along for the ride, as Becky (brilliantly played by Elisabeth Moss) alienates her bandmates, tries to wield control over an up-and-coming band, and burns almost all her bridges toward recovery. With Moss and a strong supporting cast, led by Agyness Deyn as Becky’s much-abused bass player and collaborator, Perry creates a kinetic masterpiece of a rocker’s fall and unsteady revival. (Available on demand or Blu-ray.)
[More year in review: These are the 8 best dishes from new Utah restaurants in 2019]
4. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” • In 18th century France, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), an independent painter, is hired to create a portrait of Héloise (Adèle Haenel), recently plucked from the convent by her countess mother (Valeria Golina) to marry an Italian nobleman. Marianne’s challenge is that Héloise doesn’t want to sit for a portrait, so the artist must befriend her subject and observe her looks — and paint from memory on the sly. Writer-director Céline Sciamma herself paints a luminous picture of passions, sexual and otherwise, and the liberation of female connection. (Opens at the Broadway Centre Cinemas on Feb. 28.)
5. “Avengers: Endgame” and “Captain Marvel” • In a year when some franchises — like “Game of Thrones” and “Star Wars” — ended with some disappointment, the Marvel Cinematic Universe stuck the landing with the satisfying “Avengers: Endgame.” Our heroes sacrifice much, sometimes all, to restore the universe altered by Thanos, in a story that balances humor, heartbreak and action perfectly. The franchise also produced “Captain Marvel,” a rousing Marvel character introduction, with Brie Larson as the headstrong heroine caught between her human past and her Kree present, and Samuel L. Jackson showing us how Nick Fury became the Avengers’ chief recruiter. (Streaming on Disney+ and available on Blu-ray.)
6. “Apollo 11” • Want to go to the moon? Director Todd Douglas Miller does the next best thing in this engrossing documentary, reconstructing the first mission to the moon through a wealth of archival footage — much of it never seen since the launch in 1969 — and a sound design that makes the viewer feel the rockets are under their seats. (Available on demand or on Blu-ray.)
7. “Ms. Purple” • Kasie (Tiffany Chu, in a stunning debut) works as a karaoke hostess in a Koreatown bar, trying to make enough money to help her dying father. Desperate when her dad’s caretaker quits, Katie calls on her estranged brother, Carey (Teddy Lee), to help out — and, in so doing, reopens old wounds from their abusive childhood. Director Justin Chon’s detailed, intense drama burrows under the viewer’s skin and doesn’t let go. (Available on demand.)
8. “One Child Nation” • Nanfu Wang had something growing up in China that few girls her age did: a sibling. Wang, now living in America, returns to China to talk to officials and family members about that country’s brutal one-child policy, in place from 1970 to 2015, and how it forever altered generations of Chinese people. (Streaming on Amazon Prime.)
9. “Booksmart” • This raucous and winning teen comedy is refreshingly of the moment, as it tracks two straight-A students (Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein) on the last day of school, when they realize they’ve missed out on partying and try to make it all up in one night. The results, in the hands of first-time director Olivia Wilde, is both riotously funny and a perfect distillation of freshly minted high-schoolers both eager for and terrified of the next step. (Available on demand or on Blu-ray.)
10. “The Farewell” • Director-writer Lulu Wang tells the true story of a Chinese-American writer (Awkwafina) who’s told her favorite grandma (Shuzhen Zhao) has terminal cancer. What’s more, the family has opted not to tell her, but are all going to China to visit her one last time, using the pretense of a wedding. Wang’s wry semi-autobiographical comedy is a gentle reminder of the lengths we all go to keep our family happy and, sometimes, in the dark. (Available on demand.)
The second 10
Noah Baumbach’s searing divorce drama “Marriage Story”; Jordan Peele’s unsettling thriller “Us”; Greta Gerwig’s luminous adaptation of “Little Women”; Taika Waititi’s anti-Nazi satire “Jojo Rabbit”; Julia Hart’s sneakily brilliant superhero tale “Fast Color”; Lynn Shelton’s sardonic comedy “Sword of Trust”; Marielle Heller’s heartbreaking Mr. Rogers biopic “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”; Jerémy Clapin’s eerie animated drama “I Lost My Body”; James Mangold’s rousing auto-race spectacle “Ford v. Ferrari”; Penny Lane’s hilarious and indignant documentary “Hail Satan?”