The year that Paradise Video, the last video store on Maui, finally closed is the same year everyone got addicted to Disney Plus. A sign of the times. Someone once sang that “Video Killed the Radio Star” and it seems, at the moment, that streaming online has taken over the leave-your-home, mingle-with-filmgoers experience…except it hasn’t. Not one bit. Movie lovers still know where it’s it: in the theater, filled to capacity, on opening night- the crowd, audibly excited as the lights turn down. Every year, I’m asked if movie theaters are ever going away and this is my never-changing answer: we will never lose that need to socialize, to share a new experience, to see our heroes and villains and everyone in between on that big screen, telling their stories. We need to laugh together, scream together and be moved together. That is never going away. Streaming has its benefits but also its limitations. Going to the movies is a part of our history, remains our favorite way to share our cinematic stories and take part in film art. There was a lot of the latter this year, many good reasons to leave the house. Here are my ten favorites.
- Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood: Quentin Tarantino’s ninth and probably best film is a dreamy, funny and suitably shocking meditation on our relationship with the movies. Fun fact: we share memories of our lives in the same space that houses the plots and highlights of our favorite movies. It’s no wonder that our favorite recollections feel like scenes from movies. Tarantino gets this and (note the title) both recreates and totally embellishes our past. It got him in a lot of trouble: Bruce Lee fans, rest assured the film’s most controversial scene is a fantasy that never could have happened, which (watch closely) Tarantino is making obvious. Less so for some is the ending- young audiences who don’t know Charles Manson from Marilyn Manson may miss that the finale is wish fulfillment, somehow both gory comeuppance and a tender tribute to slaughtered innocents. Tarantino is altering history in a personal way that only movies can. There isn’t a bad scene or performance in this, the very best film of 2019.
- A Hidden Life: Terrence Malick, my favorite living filmmaker has returned from a richly experimental period to make his most accessible and harrowing work since “The Thin Red Line.” This is the story of Franz Jagerstatter, the Austrian who turned his back on Nazi recruiters during WWII and suffered for his unwillingness to compromise. Like Malick’s best films, its poetic, full of beauty, filing the senses. It’s also an urgent, timely cautionary tale.
- The Irishman: Martin Scorsese’s demanding, masterful gangster epic managed to skip over the Netflix identity problem that plagued “Roma” last year. Those who complain about the length are unworthy (its 20 minutes longer than “Avengers: Endgame” and 20 times better). Speaking of which, Scorsese is right: Marvel movies aren’t cinema. This is.
- Midsommar: If you’re filmmaker Ari Aster, how do you top “Hereditary,” your smash breakthrough? Actually, very easily, as this earthy, one-of-a-kind and uniquely horrifying tour de force demonstrates. Every scene demonstrates impeccable vision and subtext, giving depth to the tale of a grieving young woman who fatefully encounters a cult.
- Ad Astra: Director James Gray’s outer space take on “Heart of Darkness” captures the detached mindset of its protagonist (Brad Pitt, terrific) and tells an expansive sci-fi epic about losing our humanity in vast isolation. It’s not “Gravity” or “Interstellar,” but still as spectacular as the former and as risk-taking and personal as the latter. Don’t miss it.
- The Lighthouse: I knew whatever writer/director Robert Eggers would come up with after “The Witch” would be noteworthy but I wasn’t prepared for this. A two-hander horror film, with Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson (both extraordinary) and nightmare-inducing visuals, it’s a work of art but has a dark heart and a shattering finish.
- Parasite: South Korean film genius Bong Joon-ho keeps topping himself, which is noteworthy when his milestones include “The Host” and “Snowpiercer.” His latest is a savage satire on class divide, which initially tickles its audience before turning on them. The best movies never leave your mind after the end credits…like this one.
- The Last Black Man in San Francisco: Among the most original films of the year, from first-time director Joe Talbot, about a native San Franciscan obsessed with his former childhood home. Eccentric, funny and startling in its beauty, there’s something alive and raw about this one.
- The Farewell: Writer/director Lulu Wang’s tender, gorgeous tribute to her grandmother is a quietly powerful examination of cultural identity and how we care for our elderly family members. Led by a lovely dramatic turn from Awkwafina, this subtle but profound masterpiece found an appreciative audience last summer.
- Glass: the most misunderstood film of 2019. It reverses expectations, avoids genre tropes and emphasizes story and character over spectacle. M. Night Shyamalan’s quirky, spare thriller told a valuable parable of confined men, fighting against oppressive doctors who tell them they have to change who they “think” they are (sound familiar?).