Last but not least, we’re down to the very best, or at least my very favorite movies of the just-completed year. It was yet another year of constant contradiction, whereby cinema as an art form was stronger than ever even as theatrical movie going as a means to see those films became less and less the standard choice for general audiences. But this isn’t necessarily about box office, and a financial rundown of the year can wait for another day. Without further ado, here are 12 of my favorite movies of the year in cowardly alphabetical order along with one at the end designated as my favorite flick of the year. Here we go…
Marielle Heller’s ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Sony)
budget: $25 million
worldwide box office: $57 million (and counting)
Director Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not a Mister Rogers biopic. It is a thoughtful, probing, somber and eventually uplifting human drama that happens to feature the beloved PBS children’s show host as a key supporting character. It is less interested in the life of Fred Rogers than it is in the lives touched by him, offering a singular story as a way to distill the man’s complicated essence into a surprisingly potent conclusion. Tom Hanks gives one of his better performances in awhile (and that’s saying something) in his refusal to explain or elaborate on the man he is playing. Fred Rogers is aggressively and performative-ly kind because he chooses to be, even when it’s work, even when it’s hard, especially when it hurts.
Olivia Wilde’s ‘Booksmart’
Booksmart (United Artists Releasing) and Good Boys (Universal)
budget: $7 million and $20 million
worldwide box office: $25 million and $111 million
Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart got the online buzz while Gene Stupnitsky’s Good Boys got the commercial success. Both films are terrific mainstream comedies about morally upstanding young people navigating the comparative underbelly. That said, the key to both R-rated comedies is that they have G-rated hearts, existing in a world where almost is everyone is aggressively kind, supportive and funny. In fact, some of the humor stems from aggressive helpfulness, while frankly much of the rest comes from surprising decency. It’s a fantasy to be sure but an enticing one. Both films mined earned laughs from modern progressivism without making a big show out of it. They make a case for “non-problematic” humor merely by offering characters who A) aren’t jerks and B) are aware of and unfazed by current social mores.
Hustlers (STX Entertainment)
budget: $25 million
worldwide box office: $157 million
Lorene Scafaria’s terrific dramedy is a top-notch studio programmer that uses its high-concept true-story (a con artist tale involve high-end strippers) to wax poetically about the limited means that society gives for women to empower themselves. Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez are both terrific, and the film is entertaining, intelligent and cinematically inventive enough that, yes, I would compare it to Casino or Goodfellas. Not unlike last year’s terrific Can You Ever Forgive Me?, this “female-led con artist movie” highlights that the motivation wasn’t glitz, glamour, fashion and fame, but mere economic survival in a world stacked against them. This isn’t just a gender-swapped genre flick with female anti-heroes playing in a dude-centric sandbox. That these are women living in a man’s world is integral to the story and informs every moment.
Keanu Reeves, Yayan Ruhian, and Cecep Arif Rahman in ‘John Wick Chapter 3 – Parabellum’
John Wick: Chapter 3 (Lionsgate)
budget: $75 million
worldwide box office: $327 million
In a decade notable for branded franchises, PG-13 fantasies and the death of the “butts in seats” movie star, John Wick was an original, R-rated, star-driven action spectacular, rooted in a specific movie star (Keanu Reeves) playing an off-kilter variation of his star persona. The franchise offers spectacular action sequences, primal storytelling, subtle world building and beautiful production values that have given Reeves yet another wholly original marquee character to his name. The eye-poppingly beautiful Parabellum cemented John Wick as the best new franchise of the decade and Reeves as the greatest Hollywood action star of his generation. The artistic and entertainment value offered in each successive installment of the John Wick series has led to unprecedented movie-to-movie commercial growth. In a world of IP-specific brands, John Wick became an A-level action franchise by sheer force of quality.
Daniel Craig and Ana De Armas in Rian Johnson’s ‘Knives Out’
Knives Out (Lionsgate)
budget: $40 million
worldwide box office: $221 million (and counting)
If Lionsgate is able to get Rian Johnson and Daniel Craig back for another Benoit Blanc mystery, then they will have had three wholly original franchises (along with Now You See Me and John Wick) in the same decade, a stunning achievement in this IP-driven era. This deliciously crafted and impeccably-casted closed room murder mystery is a blast, one that actually improves on a repeat viewing as you realize that the story made even more sense than you dared hope. It has its cake and eats it too, offering a blunt fable about economic inequality, soft bigotry and inherited entitlement while both subverting the classic murder mystery genre and offering plenty of polished tropes for those who just came for the whodunit. This one may end up in the Oscar race by sheer force of commercial and critical will.
Marriage Story (Netflix)
budget: $18 million
worldwide box office: NA
Netflix had a very good end-of-year run of original movies, even if their attempted blockbusters still stink. The best of the bunch was arguably Noah Baumbach’s painfully personal (but not necessarily autobiographical) tale of two young professionals going through a complicated divorce. Scarlett Johansson had a hell of a year, anchoring much of Avengers: Endgame and then delivering career peak turns in this film and the terrific Jojo Rabbit. Ditto Adam Driver, who excelled in Amazon’s The Report and, uh, was perfectly okay in The Rise of Skywalker. Laura Dern has both this and Greta Gerwig’s superb Little Women to her credit this year. Anyway, Marriage Story offers a raw but empathetic portrait of two people falling out of love while raising a child together, as well as how the adversarial (and expensive) legal process of divorce can turn even the most reasonable parties into bitter enemies.
The Kim Family Woo-sik Choi Kang-ho Song Hye-jin Jang So-dam Park in ‘Parasite’
budget: $25 million
worldwide box office: $127 million
The overriding theme in many of this year’s “big” movies (including Joker, natch) was how economic injustice wasn’t just rooted in Bernie Madoff-like con artists and Wall Street “fat cats,” but the structural inequities that allows the rich to remain wealthy while making it all-but-impossible for the poor to climb out of their economic situation. Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite takes a delightfully wicked high concept and spins it into a grimly thoughtful morality tale. It’s a ticking time-bomb of tension brought about not by greed or vice, but by a scheme whose end game is mere economic survival. What helps Parasite work as more than a straight-up genre flick, although it’s very good when viewed as such, is how it refuses to outright villainize any of its characters. Parasite questions what those in the middle and upper classes are willing to tolerate, justify and/or ignore in order to enjoy the conventional comforts of economic security.
Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith in ‘Queen & Slim’
Queen and Slim (Universal)
budget: $17 million
worldwide box office: $40 million
Penned by Lena Waithe, Melina Matsoukas’s scorching directorial debut plays like a cross between Bonnie and Clyde and Thelma and Louise while forging an identity unique unto itself (rip-off, don’t remake). It is a classic myth updated for our time, a western that deconstructs and celebrates the classic new wave cinema while redefining who gets to be legendary outlaws in a modern-day America. Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith (in her first leading role) anchor this blend of painful topicality and unapologetic romanticism, offering another example of how our oldest stories can be made new via new protagonists. Queen and Slim is a political screed and a tragedy about the futility of activism in a world where the presumption of innocence need not apply. In terms of who it’s about, what it’s about, how it’s about it and who gets to tell the story, Queen and Slim is everything we say we want out of the Hollywood system.
Zachary Levi and Jack Dylan Grazer in DC Films’ ‘Shazam!’
Shazam! (Warner Bros.)
budget: $90 million
worldwide box office: $363 million
All due respect to Avengers: Endgame’s cumulative achievement, DC Films and New Line Cinema’s Shazam! was the year’s best comic book/superhero movie. David Sandberg’s kid-centric fantasy juggles several chainsaws without dropping any of them. It is an unapologetically raw and emotional story about an abandoned child and his challenges navigating the foster system, it is a robustly violent and scary fantasy that pulls no punches, it is a joyful celebration of found family and surprising kindness, and it’s also a pretty terrific superhero movie. Operating like a bizarro hybrid of Spider-Man, Meet the Robinsons, Antoine Fisher and Gremlins, this “young boy transforms into a grown-up superhero” story also features the year’s best plot twist. Shazam! showed that Wonder Woman and Aquaman were no flukes, and that the DC Films franchise was back on track.
‘Toy Story 4’
Toy Story 4 (Walt Disney)
budget: $200 million
worldwide box office: $1.073 billion
Disney’s best movie, by a mile, in a year where they unprecedentedly dominated the box office, Pixar’s Toy Story 4 is a rollicking adventure comedy that justifies its existence, both as top-flight entertainment and a natural progression of the franchise’s ongoing narrative. Yes, Toy Story 3 was a definitive stopping point, and you can make the case that Toy Story 4 is as well. Where it goes, in terms of the story it tells and the arcs it highlights, feels like a logical progression from what’s come before. This is as thoughtful, nuanced and as any other installment, and it’s even funnier (and more subtly emotional) than its predecessors. I don’t know if Toy Story 4 is the best of the series, but it might be, and it solidifies the franchise as perhaps the best quadrilogy in cinema history.
Lupita Nyong’o and Lupita Nyong’o in Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’
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budget: $20 million
worldwide box office: $256 million
Jordan Peele followed up Get Out with a knottier, weightier and more complicated genre offering that’s also a “look what I can do” filmmaker flex. This gorgeous and gripping “revenge of the underclass” tale is almost all metaphor, one that refreshingly offers few concrete explanations for its unapologetically fantastical elements. Lupita Nyong’o is so good that she deserves to win Oscars for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, and Winston Duke is no slouch either. The subtly apocalyptic tale concerns a vacationing family attacked by murderous doppelgangers, and it plays out like a feverish lucid dream, and yes sometimes the plot follows a certan dream logic. Jordan Peele may or may not be the “next (fill in the blank),” but part of that journey is forming one’s own identity as a filmmaker. In 10-20 years, promising new genre filmmakers will likely get tagged as the “next Jordan Peele.” I can’t wait to see what the current Jordan Peele does next.
And now, the best movie of the year…
George MacKay in Sam Mendes’ ‘1917’
budget: $90 million
worldwide box office: $1.3 million and counting
Sam Mendes’ “single-take” World War I action drama, concerning two grunts attempting to race across enemy lines to deliver crucial, life-saving intelligence to allies readying to wage war, is a genuine marvel of movie magic. What unfolds is a remarkable piece of action filmmaking, with the “How did they do that?” pizzazz of Gravity, the “you are there” intimacy of Dunkirk and the relentless tension of Mad Max: Fury Road. Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins have created something truly unique. It works as a visual miracle, a violent action picture, a grim anti-war fable, a character play and an emotional roller coaster. It’s everything it promises to be, visually, narratively and emotionally, operating both as a technical blow-out and just a damn great movie. It’s a towering proof that there is still value in big studio theatrical movies beyond the surefire (and often quite good) franchise pics. It inspires hope that theatrical movie going may not be the first casualty of the streaming wars.
There are countless other excellent movies, like, offhand, Ad Astra, Art of Self Defense, Black and Blue, Dark Waters, Fast Color, The Irishman, Jojo Rabbit, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Late Night, LEGO Movie 2, Little Women, Little Woods, Missing Link, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, The Peanut Butter Falcon and Uncut Gems, that probably made it on any number of other critics’ best-of-year lists. They are every bit as much worth your time and money.
Many of the issues with theatrical moviegoing are about what moviegoers choose to see. If you gravitate exclusively toward franchise fare, then (all due respect to the ones that excel) you’re going to have a lower batting average than if you see both It Chapter Two AND Hustlers and you’re going to start to consider theatrical movie going to be, on the whole, a lesser form of entertainment. Nearly every movie noted above played in wide or semi-wide theatrical release.
All the talk about Disney becoming a monopoly ignores the simple fact that you, dear moviegoer, have the choice to see both The Lion King and Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood. And, yes, if you have a decent theater that won’t charge you a fortune for tickets, it’s even worth it to sample occasional ambitious failures (Cats and Gemini Man come to mind), if only so that maybe the next ambitious long shot still gets made and maybe works like a charm.
Hollywood releases, nearly every week, original, non-franchise, adult-skewing, and/or star-driven movies from an increasingly diverse batch of filmmakers and storytellers. How long that remains the case is almost entirely up to you. As always, vote with your wallet.