My favorites of the year ranged from a film that earned over a billion dollars down to a couple that barely registered on the box-office charts. There are plenty of interesting movies coming out all year long, but you have to look carefully for them.
10. The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Amazon Prime Video). A strange, fragile, wonderful little film about changing times by the Bay, this first film by Joe Talbot has a personal vision that suggests that a long, rich career awaits. The story becomes so much more heartbreaking when you learn that Jimmie Fails, the hapless wanderer who spends the movie yelling at the rich people who live in what used to be his family’s house, is playing himself, and this is a version of his story, co-written with Talbot.
9. Les Misérables. No, it’s not a sweeping historical novel. It’s a suspenseful, tightly focused present-day policier set in the crime-ridden housing projects outside Paris; nearby is a location that Victor Hugo cited in his work, hence the sardonic yet apropos title. A first film by the Afro-French Ladj Ly, a rookie filmmaker who grew up in circumstances like the ones seen in the film, Les Misérables covers much the same racially charged ground as Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing but surpasses it in every way.
8. A Hidden Life. Terrence Malick’s grave, pensive, impressionistic, interior-oriented films are not for everyone, and this one runs nearly three hours. But this true story of a Catholic Austrian farmer named Franz Jägerstätter who refused to bend the knee to Adolf Hitler and was taken prisoner for it is a towering work. Among movies dealing with deeply felt Christian apologetics, Malick’s latest is a companion to A Man for All Seasons, and church groups ought to see it. Jägerstätter’s unblinking courage in the face of evil resulted in his beatification in 2007.
7. Parasite. Picture a more layered and nuanced Korean version of Jordan Peele’s Us: Bong Joon-Ho’s black-comic social satire finds the haves and the have-nots battling for position in contemporary Korea. Contrary to the critics who see the piggies getting a well-deserved thwacking from the underclass, the film plays out much more intriguingly than that.
6. Richard Jewell. Few directors in Hollywood have the kind of clout Clint Eastwood enjoys to make whatever kind of film he wants, and in adding to his unprecedented list of first-rate movies made after the age of 75, Eastwood has taken on an unusually tangled and difficult subject. Jewell was the Atlanta security guard who, after discovering a bomb at the 1996 Summer Olympics, was mistakenly treated as a suspect by the FBI, which believed he wanted merely to draw attention to himself. Jewell was entirely innocent, but as Eastwood shows, he was also a strange man whose own lawyer couldn’t believe how many red flags he raised.
5. Hustlers. Writer-director Lorene Scafaria’s surprising and funny movie, based on a real case, explores the culture of Manhattan strip bars, where the girls are barely scraping by and the guys are Wall Streeters with immense amounts of cultural and financial resources. Sex proves to be a great leveler, though, and the girls restage Robin Hood around stripper poles. The influence of Martin Scorsese is all over this film, in its unerring musical cues, its fluid camera work, and most of all its sly but cynical sense of humor.
4. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1969 in Quentin Tarantino’s wonderfully detailed study of the last days of Southern California as paradise, before the Manson Family attacks. Though the movie is a bit self-indulgent and could have been tightened up in the middle, its knockout third act delivers some of the most satisfying imagery of Tarantino’s career. Along with Forrest Gump, it amounts to one of the most glorious works of anti-hippie propaganda in the history of motion pictures.
3. Joker. Previously a comedy director, Todd Phillips has cracked open the comic-book genre and made a breakthrough film. Like Batman Beginsin 2005, Joker has opened up intriguing new possibilities for top filmmakers to play with. Its success at the box office indicates that audiences agree with Phillips that there is a hunger for new ways of approaching familiar characters. Along with Hustlers, it’s one of the two great Martin Scorsese pictures of the year.
2. Ford v Ferrari. Old-school movie-star charisma and beautiful machines make for a thrilling combination in director James Mangold’s rousing story of how an ill-tempered car mechanic and an auto designer joined the Ford Motor Company in its quest to prove America could win in one of the last areas claimed as sovereign territory by the Europeans — the exacting, exhausting 24-hour race at Le Mans, France. Screenwriter Jason Keller and the brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth have crafted one of the smartest and wittiest scripts of the year.
1. Never Look Away (on Starz). Never heard of it? German movies don’t get promoted much in this country, but Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who previously made another of the century’s best films, The Lives of Others (2007), has topped that one with an epic about art’s persistence in the face first of Nazism, then of the post-war socialism of East Germany. A fictionalization of the life of the photo-realistic painter Gerhard Richter, it deals with the biggest themes imaginable with a level of emotional commitment to which few filmmakers even aspire anymore. It’s a rich, beautiful masterpiece.
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