Ruud’s Top 10 Films of 2019
Since the Oscars are scheduled to be presented this coming Sunday, the time has come for my annual Top Ten movie list for the past year. I did make an honest effort to see as many movies as I could that seemed promising, and so what follows is my considered opinion as to which films deserve praise for their contribution to our collective consciousness over the past twelve months. So here they are, counting down to the best of the year.
10. The Irishman
While I was frankly not nearly as impressed as most critics by Martin Scorsese’s latest organized crime thriller, I’ll admit it was a well-made film, and that Al Pacino and Joe Pesci were stellar in their supporting roles in the film, though I think it likely that they will cancel each other out in the voting for Best Supporting Actor at the Academy show, and leave the path open for Brad Pitt to take home the Oscar. But I digress. Robert De Niro, as the truck driver Frank Sheeran who ultimately becomes a hit man (i.e., a “house painter”) for the mobster Russell Bufalino (Pesci) and a kind of mobster-liaison with teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), is remarkably restrained and emotionless throughout the story, which he narrates from a nursing home. This bland affect is part of Scorsese’s attempt to show what he calls “the banality of violence.” And he succeeds. But while worthy of its accolades, I did find the film to be overlong and not a film that added anything really new to our experience. Is it really much different from what Scorsese gives us in Goodfellas or The Departed, and with many of the same actors? There’s a kind of irony here: Scorsese met with some backlash when earlier in the year he remarked that he didn’t consider Marvel films as “cinema” because cinema was an art form that is supposed to bring you the unexpected, and they tended to be all the same. Um…how unexpected is this film? But see #9.
9. Avengers: Endgame
As has been the case with every movie year for the past couple of decades, and as will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future, there were a plethora of CGI-enhanced action movies based for the most part on comic book-superheroes from the Marvel or DC universe. For those viewers who do not happen to be devoted fans of the genre, these are often pleasant but forgettable movies that follow a predictable set of conventions. Indeed, Scorsese perhaps had a point when he said of these films that “The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes” (unlike gangster films? But let that go). But there are always some that stand out from the run-of-the mill genre films in this vein (and I’m not talking about Joker, which I’ll give an honorable mention to). In 2019, this final film in the Avengers saga set a new standard, bringing the long and interconnected overall arch of the 22-film Marvel universe to a fitting and admirable climax. Part of the strength of this film is that, in fact, it allows important characters to die, and so breaks one of the cardinal rules of the genre’s template. Another is that, the villain Thanos having killed half of the known universe in the previous installment, there were fewer characters to focus on in this one. As I wrote in my review: “We actually get real scenes of character development and relationship building among the characters, whereas in previous installments we got little other than one-line sound bites that were supposed to indicate camaraderie or some such thing. For this reason the film is much more intimate than superhero movies tend to be, and it is much more interesting, because the conversations raise important questions, like how we deal with loss, how we face mortality, and ultimately, what is a life well lived? One important character has a surprising personal answer to that last question by the end of the film.”
8. Knives Out!
Rian Johnson comes from last year’s triumphant direction of the huge-budget Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi(which turned out to be much better received than the series finale this year) to a smaller quirky genre film that pays homage to, and in some ways parodies, an Agatha Christie novel. Daniel Craig, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, plays the Poirot-like detective in a murder case in a Gothic mansion that belonged to millionaire author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who’s been found murdered, and every one of his family (from Chris Evans to Jamie Lee Curtis to Michael Shannon) is a suspect. The film is a hoot, but is more than that: As I wrote in my review of the movie, “Beyond the fun, the film manages to wander unobtrusively into the area of social commentary on the question of inherited wealth, as we witness the behavior of a whole group of figures who, born on third base, are glad to pat themselves on the back when they score, and feel justified in their superiority over those losers who have to struggle. Harlan himself knew this about his family and was about to pull the plug on the lot of them before his untimely demise. Is that what got him killed? And what about Marta, the immigrant who really has made something of herself through her own efforts and retained her good humor and her empathy for other human beings in the process? Is her example what has influenced Harlan to let his progeny sink or swim on their own? This is a film that goes beyond its genre nostalgia to make a statement about the contemporary world.”
From South Korean director Bong Joon Ho (who also wrote the screenplay), this is a film that you’re going to have to read. And you’re probably going to have to read it on your computer. It did finally come to Central Arkansas last week, but only on one screen. Maybe two? Showing at very limited times. But it is now streaming. And it’s nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay. It should probably be considered the favorite to win the Best International Film award, having already won in this category at the BAFTAs and the Golden Globes. It’s also an outside threat to take the Best Picture award itself, having won the best ensemble acting award at the Screen Actors’ Guild ceremony. This very quirky story about an unemployed family that schemes its way into tutoring, housekeeping, and chauffeuring jobs with an incredibly wealthy family has something significant to say about the huge income gap in First World countries in the 21st century, but it also takes a couple of whiplash-inducing plot turns that will leave your jaws agape. For its humor, its audacity and its shock value, this is a film that deserves to be in the top ten.
6, Jojo Rabbit
This quirky and controversial film started its climb toward an Oscar nomination when it surprisingly took home the “People’s Choice” award at last September’s Toronto Film Festival. Taika Waititi, the New Zealand director who was responsible for last year’s Thor: Ragnarok, adapted his fellow New Zealander Christine Leunens’ novel, Caging Skies, into this remarkable little film about a 10-year-old Hitler youth (Roman Griffin Davis)whose imaginary friend is Adolph Hitler, played as a ridiculous buffoon by Waititi himself. The little Nazi has to confront his own absurd beliefs when he discovers that his mother (an excellent Scarlett Johansson) is harboring a teenaged Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic. I saw the film as a kind of modern Morality Play, with Jojo as the Everyman figure torn between the ideas of the demonic Hitler on one hand and the angelic mother on the other over what to do about Elsa. But the film has a more contemporary relevance a well. As I wrote in my review: “The current resurgence of right-wing politics worldwide is a danger that Waikiti’s film recognizes as well, and 10-year-old Jojo, brainwashed and consistently fed lies by the media to which he is exposed, is a perfect emblem of the 21st-century true-believing fascist. As one of the characters tells Jojo late in the film: ‘You’re not a Nazi, Jojo. You’re a 10-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.’ Aren’t they all?”
5. Toy Story 4
I don’t go to many animated movies (you’ll have to ask my wife why that is) but the whole Toy Story franchise has been of such consistent high quality that this final installment (at least we must assume it will be the final installment) is a must-see for movie lovers. It has the same great Pixar animation, the same beloved characters, some catchy Randy Newman music, and the same essential narrative pattern—it’s a quest story in which Woody must save a runaway toy—but it introduces some new characters, like the suicidal Forky and the sinister Gabby-Gabby doll, that give it a great deal of freshness. But what makes this one of the best films of the year is its serious consideration of a number of deep existential questions that will be haunting for adults looking beneath the consistently funny veneer. But a more positive spin is put on the movie by its true hero, Bo Peep (Annie Potts): As I said in my original review, “Bo Peep was not about to sit around in the limbo of childlessness, hoping for some young girl to come along and give her life meaning. She decided, radical as it may seem, that she did not need some child to belong to in order to give her life purpose. She escaped from the antique store and spends her time riding around in a skunk-mobile, a ‘lost toy’ who embraces her independence. A toy, she reasons, can give meaning to her own life, independent of the need to cling to the painful cycle of a child’s approval or indifference. If, as Sartre said, ‘existence precedes essence’ if there is no meaning to our lives other than the meaning we give to them ourselves, then it is the most courageous of individuals who dictate the meaning of their own lives, without relying on others—children—to legitimize their own existence. Bo Peep is what toys (metaphorically human beings) become when they grow up.”
4. Marriage Story
Like The Irishman, this film could only be seen by viewers outside of New York and Los Angeles on streaming video. Unlike The Irishman, Marriage Story did not attempt an epic sweep of American history, but tries only to be a record of a relationship—a sad but all-too-real account of a marriage falling apart and all the attendant consequences that involves. Although the film has been nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, director Noah Baumbach did not get a nomination. Perhaps that is understandable because this is a small and intimate film that plays well on the small screen (better, arguably, than Scorsese’s more expansive drama), it is the actors we are focused on, and Scarlet Johansson as wife Nicole and Adam Driver as husband Charlie are both up for Oscars for leading rolls. Laura Dern as Johansson’s divorce attorney is also nominated for Best Supporting Actress, and having already won the BAFTA award as well as the Golden Globe, she seems the favorite to take home the well-deserved Oscar in this category. Johansson and Driver do terrible things to each other, but both manage to retain our sympathy, as the film shows the agonizing death by a thousand cuts that constitutes a messy divorce. It’s hard to think of a more wrenching scene in any film this year than when Driver pounds the wall and tells Johansson he wishes she were dead. Driver probably made a lot more money this year out of Star Wars, but he’s never given a better performance. As for Johansson, she seems to be having a true annus mirabilis, with a best Actress nomination here, and a Supporting Actress nomination for Jojo Rabbit. Watching this film is a lot like watching a play, and the intense interpersonal drama makes it one of the best films of the year.
3. Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood
A few months ago I probably would have ranked Tarantino’s latest effort somewhat lower on my list, but the longer I’ve had to think about it the more I like it. Unlike most of the others on this list, it’s a film that keeps popping into my mind at odd times, like a tune you can’t get out of our head. I remember that very spooky scene of Brad Pitt at the Spahn Ranch where “Pussycat” has brought him to meet the “family.” I remember the scene on the set of The Green Hornet when combat veteran Brad Pitt beats up Mike Moh, playing the young Bruce Lee. I remember Leonardo DiCaprio getting a valuable acting lesson from precocious eight-year old co-star Trudi (a scene-stealing Julia Butters) on the set of TV’s Tanner. But mostly I remember the fairy-tale ending that rewrites history, a la Inglorious Basterds, and reverses the Manson family murders. Maybe I just like the music, the retro film techniques, and the other reminders of 1969, a year that looms large in my psyche. But as I wrote in my original review of the movie, “Overall, this film is highly enjoyable. Brad and Leo have a great chemistry—like a new Newman and Redford (Butch Cassidy was a 1969 film, remember). The plot points do all come together at the end, but to tell you how would be a spoiler. And ultimately this is a Tarantino film that ends with hope and optimism, and that’s something we all need these days. Even if it’s only a fairy tale.”
Last year’s best film, whatever foolishness happened at the Oscars, was Peter Jackson’s brilliant documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, with its brilliantly restored World War I footage that made us feel as if those images were alive and present people. This year’s World War I film, Sam Mendes’s 1917, made us feel as if we were actually in the war itself, with long takes that allowed us to follow two soldiers through the trenches and across No Man’s Land to prevent an ill-considered offensive that would bring British soldiers into a German trap. The most remarkable thing about the film is that Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins have edited the entire film to make it appear that it is all shot as two long takes (with an unexpected nap in between). While some critics thought this approach gimmicky, the fact is it made audiences feel they were in Flanders Fields themselves. As I mentioned in my review, “I think if you watch it you’ll find, as I do, that the technique enhances and showcases the film, not the other way around.” Is it going to win the Oscar for Best Picture of the Year? Probably. Is it the Best Picture of the Year? See below.
- Little Women
When I reviewed this film, I made the observation that no women were nominated for the “Best Director” Oscar last year, but that “it would be a full-fledged travesty if Gerwig is not nominated this year for this film. And it’s really about time a woman won this award, and none has deserved it more than Greta Gerwig for Little Women.” Well, it comes as no surprise that the tragedy has occurred, and the old boys’ director club failed to recognize Gerwig, despite Little Women’s six Oscar nominations. But as I asserted in that same review, Gerwig’s film is “quite simply the best film version yet made of Alcott’s classic novel,” better than Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 Winona Ryder version, better even than George Cukor’s classic 1933 Katherine Hepburn version. The screenplay makes brilliant use of the autobiographical elements of the book, and expands certain aspects of the story (the Amy/Laurie marriage, for instance) in ways that brilliantly complement the original novel. Add the impressive score and the beautiful costumes and cinematography, and cap it off with memorable performances by Oscar-nominated Saoirse Ronan (Jo) and Florence Pugh (Amy) and you have a film that will delight for as long as the classic novel it adapts lives. And that promises to be a long time.
Honorable Mention: Joker, Judy, Ford v. Ferrari, The Mustang, Everybody Knows
“The Knight of the Cart,” fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.