To see the entire list of my 100 top movies of last decade, or to find the landing page for the other years in this series, click here.
I feel a bit on an island rating 2019 as low as I do in this decade. Only two years debut on my list later than 2019, and 2019 is on the lower end of total movies represented as well. Other lists underrepresent 2019, but then again other lists came out in the last quarter of the year (or, as Indiewire did, late July!), and in the quest for clicks and engagement missed out on some of the key pictures of the year. Seeing as this list is coming out in June 2020, you’d think I would compensate for that in some way, and I suppose I have by including multiple late releases, but I also know that I’m coming to this list without having seen some of the best-reviewed movies of the year: Vitalina Varela, Birds of Passage, Pain and Glory, Aquarela, Corpus Christi, and others could well have been expected entries, but I am not made of money, and so 2019 is going to be particularly empty as far as foreign movies go. (There are others that I did manage to catch up with, like Les Miserables or Monos, and they’re not here either, so who knows how it all might have gone down.) Another reason this year is a little short on my overall list is because I have those pedantic qualifications for what year a movie belongs to. Some releases that I’ve seen on other lists as 2019 entries I have as 2018 entries because they debuted in their home nations the year prior. Thus, movies like Ash Is Purest White or The Nightingale, which I have definitely seen on best of 2019 lists stateside, will pad a different year instead.
In the end, what I think separates me most from the larger commentariat is that I’ve omitted a number of the year’s most beloved and best reviewed movies from this list. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ends so sophomorically that I couldn’t have made a place for it even if I’d wanted to do so. Putting Marriage Story on a best-of list is sort of like giving an A to a plagiarized term paper. Uncut Gems is two and a half hours of Michael Cera shouting “We need to play now and loud!” At least I liked swaths of all three of those movies…Midsommar, ugh, is the kind of thing you make if you grew up as an only child. Movies like The Lighthouse, Us, High Life, and Atlantics, which are among the better movies of the year, were never able to stick on my list mostly because I ran out of room. I’m not going to pretend like my list is some hipster expression of “You wouldn’t get it” arthouse exclusivity, because this is an almost aggressively mainstream set of selections. All the same, because this is such an accessible list (and I mean that literally, since at least half of these movies come for free with subscriptions to popular streaming services), I think it’s also a clear statement as to where my taste stands compared to other listmakers who are primarily spending their time on movies which don’t live their whole lives at festivals or Lincoln Center.
17) The Irishman, directed by Martin Scorsese
Over and over again I find myself writing about movies which lose their way in the last act, failing to stick the landing, just not finding a meaningful conclusion. It is one of the most difficult things to do in any form of storytelling, but of course one of the most essential. There was so much talk about the length of The Irishman, of the effort it commanded to complete it; putting aside how bizarre that sounds when the word we’ve adopted for watching multiple episodes of a television show at one time is “binge,” the way that Scorsese balances the length of the picture with a deliberate denouement is what makes this one of his greatest efforts. No one will ever call a sporting event great because of what happened in the first half. It is late-inning heroics or buzzer-beating shots which make a game iconic, and in a similar way The Irishman is willing to put off crackerjack stuff because it knows that what happens toward the end is what’s most important. Everything that happens in this movie from the dinner to honor Frank where it becomes clear to us that Jimmy refuses to be saved until that tremendous final shot of an aged, infirm Frank sitting in that dim room with the door open is pugilistic and extraordinary. In a shorter movie, I think Frank’s devotion to Jimmy would feel thinner, and thus the fact that he’s ordered to murder him by the man to whom he owes his life, all his comfort, and most of his pain, would be thinner as well. In the movie as we have it, the party followed by the cereal breakfast at the hotel constitutes a one-two punch as devastating as anything I’ve ever seen in a gangster movie. So much of what these movies are about, historically, runs on the external punishment that will eventually be passed down to the person who has done wrong (“Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?”), or how the punishment will linger on and buffet the people the gangster presumably cares about (the end of The Godfather, all of The Godfather Part II). The Irishman does something which Goodfellas nudges up to at the end, which is to note that living with the memories of the life is its own retribution, and to suffer that retribution by fading out after an explosive life. Frank goes to prison, plays bocce with Russell as the old man grows so weak that he can’t even chew his own food; those scenes are already a far cry from the jail dinner prepped with razor blades. And yet the real punishment in that movie is not to go to prison over a Buick, but to get out and linger in a nursing home where his family never appears, to stumble through basic Catholicism with a priest whose bedside manner is no better than average, to be invisible even when the door is open.
After my first watch of this movie, I thought this movie was missing the elements of spiritual stuggle that make Scorsese America’s foremost director of religious movies. After a couple more times with it, I think that’s probably only true compared to like, Silence. The Irishman is about a person who has lost Pascal’s wager. He lives his life without regard for any legal or ethical tenet, let alone what God might have commanded, and when it comes time to die he finds himself backpedaling desperately. The whole movie is about this person who has lived his life without any rock to build a foundation on. There is no eternity in the mind of Frank Sheeran, except perhaps death itself, and that need not be considered while he is still living. Working for Russell, who finds Frank deeply useful as a house painter but also as someone who can give him some semblance of family experience—Russell’s foundation is a more attractively colored sand than Frank’s, but it’s still sand—is not a foundation. It turns out that his friendship with Jimmy built up over time and tested almost constantly after those first few good years is no foundation either, for no person would destroy the foundation to his own home. Frank’s final attempt to win the bet occurs when we start to see the trappings of religion in his little room, although it is no surprise that we see the trappings show up around the same time he begins to pick out a casket and a final resting place. Maybe it’s because he’s scared of Hell, but it seems to me more likely that he is searching for something to give his life a little more meaning now that the people who gave it meaning are dead, and this is no more successful than a forgotten homework assignment scribbled out quickly on the back of the bus.
18) Parasite, directed by Bong Joon-ho
I don’t think there’s anything else to add about Parasite that hasn’t already been said, to be honest. (Since it came out, I think I’ve written as much about this movie, and about where it fits in THE DISCOURSE, as I have about any other single picture.) How far back do you have to go to find a Best Picture winner with this kind of sweeping critical adoration and breathless audience reaction? Is this The Godfather of the 2010s? I’ll be discussing a similar reaction I had to another movie later on, but it applies up here too: I am just gobsmacked that this movie threads the needle it threads. For Parasite to be so terrifically entertaining, and for it to be so stimulating in the best part of the theatrical experience—when you are walking out of the theater and collecting your thoughts about the movie—is rare. I was mostly joking about The Godfather, but I am not joking when I say that there are only a few movies like Parasite which come out in a decade, or even in a person’s lifetime. (What bliss that there was a movie even more entertaining and more incisive than Parasite from this decade, but I digress.) This is a popcorn movie where you can crunch as loud as you’d like to as long as you keep up with the subtitles, and man, chomp away, because there are scenes in the first two-thirds of the movie which invite you to laugh and gape and scream as much as you can hope for. It’s also a movie where the subtext doesn’t stay that way for very long, and which invites us to consider the parasitism in the story which would be impossible in a natural environment, as no two organisms which leech off each other the way the Kims and the Parks do could survive long. That the furious and highly original entertainment that we get from the Kims playacting and scheming for the comfort that being the servants of vapid people can give should transition perfectly into the horror of what’s in the basement, and should transition further into the stark reality that the rain washes away, is the apex of popular cinema. The comparison I’ve been fond of giving is to Hitchcock, but there is something Shakespearean about Parasite too in the way that it is designed to have something for everyone. Surely that experience I had late one night last November was not so dissimilar to the rush that my groundling antecedents might have had centuries back at the Globe.
If the movie does have a shortcoming—and while I’ve never felt any pressure to put Parasite first or something like that, it is certainly a movie that I think many people would expect to see in stronger contention for that spot than where I’ve got it might intimate—it’s in those last fifteen minutes or so when it struggles to stick the landing. Even in the theater I thought that the second stabbing at the birthday party was a hiccup, and then waking up in the hospital brings a character back to life who I’d made peace with being dead. The ending is neat, in some ways, having replaced one man in the basement with another, but more importantly I think the ending is a little too saccharine for a movie which had never touched peach-sweet, let along aspartame-sweet. I think the movie knows as well as we do that Ki-woo is never going to be able to free his father, but there’s a grab for our heartstrings there nevertheless which doesn’t keep its grip. Hearing the faithful transmission that Ki-taek is sending out gives us a sort of closure that’s desirable, but the message he has for his son is not written in lightning the way that the birthday party was just a few minutes of movie time earlier.
35) A Hidden Life, directed by Terrence Malick
Before Franz is sent to prison for refusing to swear loyalty to Hitler, for Franz takes literally the words in the Bible where it says not to swear an oath (and certainly not to swear an oath which would make God secondary), we spend so much time in St. Radegund. Aside from the sensational beauty of the place, seeing Franz interact with his loving wife and happy children is proof of just how normal he is. The film gently nudges prosaic every now and again, but it’s purposeful. How ordinary Franz is stands as a striking indictment against history itself, the story of normal people all over the world. There is such injustice: why is it better to live as part of a world that tolerates it than it is to refuse to bow to it? Franz comes down on the latter side, but it comes at a grievous cost to himself and to his family. His children will have no father, his wife no husband. If there is no god, and no afterlife, then he has acted rashly and perhaps even cruelly. If there is one, then perhaps someday he may be changed, but Franz and his family cannot really know the truth of it any more than they can know the heat of the sun. St. Radegund is not an exciting place, but the place you live in and life you have there are equally tedious. In the face of men who conceive of themselves as representative of a race of supermen, Franz knows himself an everyman who joins in the village festivities or raises his children more or less like everybody else. Of course, the irony is that the everymen are on the front lines fighting for Nazi Germany, in the courts which send men like Franz to prison, in towns like St. Radegund which reject Franz, and that the superman is the one who can bear everything and, in the end, die doing it. When he is confronted by the mayor for his refusal to swear the oath, we are reminded in a horrible way that only someone exceptional would be on the receiving end of that conversation.
It’s harder to play normal people than anything else, I’d imagine. I think there’s a baseline level of skill it requires to successfully play some villain with exceptionalities (the Joker, Hannibal Lecter, etc.), but that performance is not as difficult as playing someone recognizable. The point of Anton Chigurh, to some extent, is that you will never meet Anton Chigurh, and no one you’ve met has ever met Anton Chigurh an more than they’ve met Godzilla. Between you and your friends and families, you may know five Ed Tom Bells, and it’s why the most remarkable performance in No Country for Old Men belongs to Tommy Lee Jones and not to Javier Bardem. In the same sense, August Diehl and Valerie Pachner are playing these incredibly different roles, and doing so with very little dialogue. These are two magical physical performances, impossible to separate from the ground they walk on; in my memory, there is context to the slope of Pachner’s body holding a full bucket of water on the side of a hill, and every tilt in Diehl’s slim frame is noticeable and meaningful. Pachner is at her best when she is playing, breaking the movie’s inherent seriousness over her smile. For his part, Diehl is most remarkable when his face is at rest. In moments of peace, we can feel the calm exuding from Diehl the way a diffuser mists scent into a room.
37) Portrait of a Lady on Fire, directed by Céline Sciamma
In this movie, theory becomes praxis. So much has been written about “the gaze” in film studies and in janky blog posts (raises hand) that the term can be rubbed thin; a term like “scopophilia” still has power, but in regular discourse it’s an inkhorn term. Parrying the gaze, reversing it, subverting it: it’s all been talked about. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a movie which actively works with the gaze, from the basic outline of its plot to an unforgettable shot that is one of the best of the century so far. It’s about halfway through the movie. Marianne has already maimed her portrait of Héloïse smiling, recognizing it as a form of betrayal against somebody who has already given her a little trust. During a new session, she explains to her model that she already has her figured out. Your embarrassment you give away like this; your annoyance you give away like that. “You know it all,” Héloïse says tartly. “Forgive me,” Marianne replies. “I’d hate to be in your place.” Héloïse calls Marianne to her.
Héloïse: Look. If you look at me, who do I look at? When you don’t know what to say, you touch your forehead. When you lose control, you raise your eyebrows. And when you’re troubled, you breathe through your mouth.
It’s a little tidy, admittedly, watching. the actors perform these actions before being told what action they’ve just performed, but it’s all setup anyway, and the payoff is so explosive that it doesn’t matter if you can watch the trail of gunpowder ignite. Marianne, having lost this round, perhaps having had some of her conceptions about her job smashed up a little, walks back to her position where her canvas can shield her slightly from Héloïse’s withering observation. The camera closes on Héloïse, and then there’s a cut. Now we’re unmistakably in her place, looking from her perspective, watching Marianne busily brushing, her eyebrows still narrowed into that 150° angle. And then she looks all the way up. Marianne looks at Héloïse, Noémie Merlant looks into the camera, and by extension us. There are wheels within wheels here, and the effect in the moment is overwhelming. The only thing I can compare it to is if we got Kim Novak’s perspective when she walked out of the green light to Jimmy Stewart, if the pleasure of his gaze were reflected in the pleasure of hers, or diminished, or heightened. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a great movie for a hundred reasons, but if it ended with this spectacular scene and left the rest of the movie hanging, it still would have made this list. Sciamma already dents the famous predatory male gaze in this picture; here she actively, knowingly hoes away at fallow ground. The reciprocity of the gaze, artist to model and vice versa, viewer to movie and vice versa, is incubated in this scene. The democracy of the movies is here too in this moment, the way that the movie can shape us just as easily as we shape it through our comprehension and process.
For most movies, this much discussion of “how artists can capture us,” and how we can capture them as well, would be sufficient. For Portrait of a Lady on Fire, it’s simply one angle that the movie chooses to take. The interpretation of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice which the movie points to is one that I had never thought about before, and it makes the discussion of the gaze that much more complex. Everyone knows that Orpheus turns around and Eurydice is sent back to Hades for good, and I think most of us have come to ascribe a Lot’s wife’s curiosity to Orpheus, or doubt, or something along those lines. It’s hypothesized in the film that Orpheus turns around because he is an artist before a lover, and Eurydice is only a woman, and it is more important for Orpheus to have this grand, dramatic moment in turning around than it is for him to keep Eurydice with him. Marianne will recreate the scene in a painting of her own later in the film, and it reflects the unusual but very appealing interpretation that she and Héloïse come to that night. It also serves as a kind of indictment of the art itself, for the answer that Marianne comes up with in creating the scene of Orpheus and Eurydice, and the answer that she finds in a portrait of Héloïse with a child and a book opened to a particularly telling page, is that freezing the moment is no replacement for the moment itself. Art is not insufficient, precisely, but it is not any more satisfying than the touch of a breeze on one’s cheek which, if more solid, could have been mistaken for the feeling of a lover’s fingers.
44) Little Women, directed by Greta Gerwig
The more I think about this movie the more miraculous it feels. Little Women is like the Bible in that no one has actually read it in the last twenty-five years but everyone saw the movie. That’s why it is exactly the kind of text which we can imagine being absolutely ruined by modernity or totally flattened by our past experiences with the story. Greta Gerwig manages to avoid both, and if that were all she did, that would still be a reason to like the movie. Of course, that’s hardly all she accomplished, because Little Women is one of the most complete movies of the decade, with the best screenplay of any movie of its year and probably the most effectively directed cast as well. It is very difficult for a movie to ask us to have fun without compelling us to do so, and the moment a movie demands our good time, it turns into GOB doing that “Everybody dance now” bit from Arrested Development. Little Women starts in a place we do not necessarily expect: New York, with Jo in her adult years, seeing plays, living at her boardinghouse, parrying the expectations of the men she’s boldly put herself into contact with. We find Amy in Paris, and Laurie too, and that serves the movie’s primary concern, one that I’ve never found emphasized in a Little Women adaptation before. Amy is not simply a thorn in Jo’s side which culminates in her marrying the dream boy her older sister sloughs off without realizing she might want him back. Amy is not a force of nature which ruins Jo, but a person very much like her with hopes of greatness and the knowledge of insufficiency that burns deeply. Amy retreats to practicality when Jo would double down on her idealism, but otherwise they are quite like one another. Laurie, bless his heart, tries to propose to both of them, and they react the same way. “No,” and then a pause, a little physical stutter, “no.” Laugh at Laurie for trying to dig up a wife from the March family no matter the cost, but it’s clear why he courts one and marries the other: only people who are so like each other could have identical reactions to the same offer, and when he says to Jo in dismay that he cannot imagine loving anyone else, we find that his imagination has only to take him so far. The reasons why are very different, in the end (and while Jo has the better scene, Amy’s reason why not burns beneath the skin more than her sister’s), but that’s what makes them transfixing. The impulses in both are identical, but their hearts are different. When Amy is a contender for success in many of the same ways that Jo is a success, and the movie intends for us to see her as a rival, not a thorn, that changes everything. Structurally this opens up the movie for conflict where either side could conceivably come out on top, but the same basis we’re all familiar with remains: these are sisters who despite their occasionally fervid quarrels do love each other and neither one of them is trying to come out on top at the expense of the other.
In what I’ve written about Little Women in the past, I feel like I’ve given so much time to the screenplay and the acting in this movie at the expense of the other technical work that makes it revelatory, and that hardly seems fair. Alexandre Desplat’s score is a very good one, and Yorick Le Saux’s photography, perhaps the most controversial aspect of the picture, is as outstanding as it was a decade before in Carlos, though his coolness with opaque light is as evident here as it was then. But Little Women would have been successful with a different score or a different DP, and although theoretically this movie could have worked with a different cast, I don’t want to imagine it any other way. The importance of casting well is frequently brought up when there’s a weak link in the chain, but not enough when the entire chain is impregnable. An advantage that Little Women has over its predecessors is that it chooses to rely on the actors to make themselves younger rather than double-casting, which is not an ineffective choice on its own merits but stands to reduce the intimacy we’ve built with the character already. It seems like a crazy choice to let Florence Pugh play the same girl who burns Jo’s novel and the same woman who comes home from France wed to Jo’s presumed squeeze, but after seeing the movie it would have been far crazier to deprive us of her clomping around in a cast of her accidental making or of the squeaky resolve of “You’ll regret this, Jo March!” or, of course, her insistence that she has the best feet in the family and the least elegant nose. If I write about how good Ronan is I might start misting up again. Chalamet, as a kind of manic pixie dream boy, seems to have found the calling that’s been avoiding him for a few years; as his uncle, Chris Cooper gives one of the most soulful and considered performances of a movie that is filled to the brim with them, playing off of Eliza Scanlen’s likewise quiet performance and thus emphasizing the tragedy we all know is coming. Gerwig has even found Meryl Streep something to do, who has been wandering in a wilderness of vainly dull leading roles for the better part of my sentient life; as Aunt March, the flintiness mixed with very strong one-liners (“That’s because I’m rich”) finally come through. After two movies, it feels fair to wonder if Greta Gerwig is already one of this country’s best directors of ensembles.
66) Dark Waters, directed by Todd Haynes
There’s this interesting phenomenon that happens in movie-world where a director with serious bona fides makes a movie and people hear the one-sentence synopsis and say, “Oh, it’s directed by [guy or gal in question]? That sounds cool, I’ll have to check it out.” And then when the movie actually is released, it’s like the movie never was released. It simply does not find its audience, even though there are presumably a number of people who would have identified themselves as that audience a couple of months before. These movies frequently appear to belong to a recognizable genre, and then the director, who has bona fides for a reason, does something with the genre which is unexpected or a little off-center (but not off-center enough, if the critics are to be believed), and after the dust settles the remarks are basically, “Well, get ’em next time, champ.” Silence is the champ here, but this weird little genus also includes Widows, If Beale Street Could Talk, First Man, and Dark Waters, a movie which appears to follow that dogged whistleblower script so closely that it even got a number of critics I trust to dismiss it as an uninspired, un-Haynesian movie. Dark Waters is certainly a dogged whistleblower movie, based on a true story, ripped from New York Magazine. It is also totally unlike any of the other movies I’ve seen which it is supposed to be so similar to because it ends so differently. One of the movie’s best scenes takes place at Benihana, hilariously, where the Bilotts are celebrating what should be the end of the story. More than 70,000 people over the better part of a decade have voluntarily been tested to see what responsibility DuPont bears for significant health problems; the findings unequivocally show that DuPont was responsible, and the battle that Bilott has waged with tepid support from the people he hoped would be in his corner more reliably (his boss and his wife, who the movie never smears in the interest of conflict) appears to be over at last. It has taken all of his time, his devotion, his health. He has taken pay cuts at his job, and it looks like his marriage is on the line. The least that he could do in response to such good news for his case is go to Benihana with the wife and kids. He gets a phone call while he’s there, though, and it is a moment of despair that seeps right into the gut: DuPont is backing out of the agreement. The movie still ends on something of a hopeful note, as Bilott wins his first three individual cases for restitution from DuPont armed with the data from the study. The problem is that at the rate those cases are tried, it will be closer to the year 3000 than to the year 2000 before everyone who stands to be made whole has their day in court. That mindset is what separates Dark Waters from its cohort; it believes in change, but it also recognizes the fact of institutional power which will not yield in the face of little things like decency. There’s nothing to celebrate. There’s only more work to do.
Edward Lachman is not usually the first name off the tongue when one calls for the best cinematographers in the business, but his work on this movie (plus three other Haynes pictures) more than proves that his remarkable gifts. He has the power of miasma, which I think is in evidence in his work at least as far back as The Virgin Suicides, and he can use an overwhelming saturation of one blurry color to effect. This is one of those movies where the fluorescent lights feel especially oppressive—I get a headache just thinking about that dark little room where Rob unpacks all the boxes of documents that DuPont has sent over to the firm in an effort to drown him in paperwork that they assume he’d been unwilling to do—but so does outside. That closet where Rob figures out what a PFOA is and how that relates to Teflon and birth defects is not so different from Parkersburg, where PFOAs and birth defects and cancer are a way of life and death. Every time Rob goes out there to see Wilbur Tennant, the entire world is a dead, glassy blue. No happy place could possibly be that color, and the more we head back there the more haunting and sad it becomes. Just as there is no escape from that weighty, teary blue, there is no escape from what DuPont has done to the Parkersburgs of America.
68) The Souvenir, directed by Joanna Hogg
How closely The Souvenir hews to the life of Joanna Hogg is neither here nor there for the purposes of my ranking, even though I think I’m contractually obligated to note that this movie is somewhat autobiographical; the concept of “the portrait of the artist as a young woman” rather than the traditional formulation is interesting, but I don’t even think the movie thinks that’s its primary thrust. The idea that makes the movie remarkable is about naivete, and instead of making our naive protagonist a child or a teenager, it is a basically self-possessed young woman who projects responsibility throughout the movie. Except when her boyfriend gets in on the action. Then the naivete is painful, and shocking, and the critique the movie makes of Julie starts at home. Her family life is…dainty, basically, with a mother who seems perpetually dazed but whose impropriety sensors are entirely attuned. The house and the grounds are large and attractive, and the place looks empty. When Julie brings Anthony home for dinner, despite the fairly current conversation about the IRA that comes up, it seems as if the two of them have time traveled back some years to a different England. Julie blends well enough with her friends and fellow film students, even the more avant-garde types, but it’s clear that she has been brought up in an environment in which pushiness came across passive-aggressively rather than brusquely, baldly. Thus she is unprepared for Anthony, whose entire mien is attractively brutalist, speaking in a low slur, a little shaggy and disheveled while still maintaining a handsome wardrobe, so direct that it disarms her. When he asks for money, gets her to pay for dinners, tells her that he thinks he might be responsible for another woman’s desperate and romantic suicide, Julie is trained to back down. Defusing or minimalizing confrontation is the way polite people act, and by acting as if his honesty and bluntness are virtues in and of themselves, she questions herself. It is difficult to watch, but it is absolutely gripping because of how good Honor Swinton Byrne and Tom Burke are. For my money, the best scene of the movie, and pound-for-pound maybe even the best scene of the year, is one in which they negotiate over her bed. He asks her to move over to give him a little more room. The camera is angled in such a way that we can see that she is on the edge of the bed already, and he does have a little space to stretch out. She tells him that she hasn’t got any room to give. He presses, insists that she move over some. It’s the kind of petty headbutting that any couple is familiar with, which is why it’s clear that there’s nothing petty about this. She’s laughing a little, and he has a tone in his voice which passes as “lighthearted” for him, but it is clear that he intends to move this woman over no matter what she tells him. He intends to be in control of her in public and in private. A naive person stays in bed and chuckles; a seasoned one takes the covers she can and spends the next morning ruminating over the future of the relationship with a cuppa.
The Souvenir is one of the prime achievements in cinematography from its year, straightforward to the point of austerity. The production design on Julie’s apartment in particular adds to the cold touch of the movie, for she has everything decorated and furnished in white that cannot bear any mess, although certainly the mess will creep into her flat. One could point to any number of shots or sequences that stand out for their excellence in composition, but because I’m basic we have to talk about the last scene of the movie. Anthony is dead—thank heavens, probably, because death is the only way out for Julie—from the heroin overdose that he spent the entire movie building up to. Standing by herself away from a soundstage, we see her from a distance. She is terribly small, and so in shadow that we could not know the color of her clothes or hair if this shot were placed at the beginning of the movie. The door is open, and the gaping rectangle reveals an overcast sky of the early evening. In that shot, she has been cut down, but there is also great possibility in front of her: the door is open to her, after all. She stands there, and the movie ends. It is as optimistic an ending as this movie could have, measured as it is, but no matter how insignificant Julie appears to be in that moment, the possibilities in her life still remain. It’s done just with the camera, and it is a sublime finish to a powerful movie.
87) Knives Out, directed by Rian Johnson
Some movies require no other description other than saying that they’re “just the best time.” Knives Out is just the best time, and like so many movies that are just the best time, what makes it so enjoyable is that it’s like the song: “everything old is new again.” Knives Out is deep undercover. It sounds like a murder mystery; conversations about death turn into conversations about wills and, most importantly to the worst characters, inheritances. It looks like a murder mystery: why else would so many people be around at this old mansion? It is resolved like a murder mystery, even, except that the resolution of who killed Harlan Thrombey (technically himself, but really Marta) comes so early that the movie’s story is more about Marta’s cover-up than it is about a murder mystery. And yet it is emphatically a murder mystery, because Harlan’s death was absolutely premeditated. I’ve always liked it when movies describe themselves, whether or not that description is intentional or flattering, though in the case of Knives Out it is both. Remember the immortal words of Benoit Blanc, who, like me, sees the world in various doughnut shapes:
But we must look a little closer. And when we do, we see that the doughnut hole has a hole in its center. It is not a doughnut hole at all, but a smaller doughnut, with its own hole, and our doughnut is not a hole at all!
This is demented stuff, and of the highest order. We’ve been primed for this, due to the earlier doughnut-related conversation in the movie, and now, just at the moment that we’ve all been taught by years of watching movies and reading novels to recognize as the climactic moment of the story—a climactic moment which about seventy-five minutes ago we were pretty sure wasn’t going to happen, mind!—Rian Johnson lets us know that something big has happened. Benoit Blanc has figured it out, and the best analogy he’s got is that of a Mobius doughnut. I don’t know that there’s a writer in Hollywood who has the requisite guts and who is appropriately nuts enough to make that happen other than Rian Johnson. It takes so much confidence to pull off this kind of story in the first place, and then to decide that the best way to bring it home is with a sentence that includes the phrase “a smaller doughnut, with its own hole” is just stunning. It wouldn’t matter, of course, unless it worked, but it does. Everything about Knives Out works, and that’s what makes it just the best time.
Knives Out is also a movie with a message, and if the preaching is a little loud sometimes that’s fine. There are a number of cracks thrown in at the alt-right kid, and the Toni Collette character is such a specific stereotype that I think the line “I read a tweet about a New Yorker article about you” is the one most likely to live on when people talk about this movie’s screenplay. The way the family wants to act from a position of noblesse oblige towards Marta, as greasily and obsequiously as possible, is clarified as limousine liberal posturing as soon as Harlan’s will “takes care of her” in a much more dramatic fashion. The movie also casts its final battle between an ultra-WASP trust fund jerkwad—played by a guy whose several performances as Captain America will lead his obituary—and the daughter of an undocumented immigrant who was his grandfather’s caretaker. These are the loud moments of preaching to the choir, culminating in the end with that unforgettable final shot where Marta takes a quiet little sip from a mug bearing one heck of a legend. It’s the quieter ones that work better still. Think about the dismissive way that Ransom treats Blanc (“CSI: KFC”), down to the fact that he hires the guy without believing he will be capable of solving the case that, of course, implicates him. It’s the same set of low expectations that one finds so frequently from Northeasterners, especially ones who believe that they have “ancestral homes,” directed towards white Southerners. The accent is too, too far from Cary Grant, and thus it denotes stupidity. The white Southerner is inherently racist, but listen to this particular species of Boston limousine liberal long enough and you’ll wonder who these white Southerners are even being racist toward: they’ll forget that people of color live in the South, too, and that by any logical standard African-Americans in the Southeast won the same war the Bostonians did. (It’s worth noting that the police detective played by Lakeith Stanfield, is basically ignored by this white family.) Fran is ultimately disposable for Ransom, not because he’s such a criminal mastermind that he intends to use her to pin Marta, but because he’s rich and the help are inevitably disposable; that Marta ultimately proves her solidarity with another worker in trying to save her life completely throws him. One of the assumptions in any murder mystery is that justice will be served, but it is exciting to watch so many different forms of justice win out by the end of the movie.
100) The Farewell, directed by Lulu Wang
I think what appeals to me second-most about The Farewell is the way that has a very traditional sitcom setup. How many times have we turned on the TV and seen the plot about “Don’t tell X about Y, because X can’t keep a secret,” and then X finds out, naturally, and then everyone hustles to stop X from blurting it out? What appeals to me most about the movie is that Billi, filling the role of X, never does blurt it out. The family is terrified that their most Americanized, most emotional member will be the one who lets Nai Nai in on the secret of her terminal illness, but for whatever reason Billi manages to hold it together better than some of those concerned family members. Her cousin and her uncle both have tearful breakdowns at the wedding that’s been cobbled together for the benefit of getting everyone in the same place to see Nai Nai one more time, but Billi spends that wedding doing karaoke and looking on at her weeping relatives with something between awe and horror. Getting caught is funny (I guess, can decades of network television be wrong), but forbearing is actually interesting, and there is so much effort given by these characters to hold on as tight as possible to a secret that is desperate to wriggle its way out of their grasp. All in all, Billi’s attempts to keep it in are about as graceful as anybody else’s, although she does get close in one of the movie’s genuinely funny scenes in which she has it out in English with Nai Nai’s doctor while Nai Nai, who does not know English, tries to set up her granddaughter with the guy she’s debating. This is not a movie which is particularly partisan, I wouldn’t say, but the relative equanimity that Billi brings to the morbid proceedings is based on how willing she is to struggle with the decision of whether or not Nai Nai ought to be told she’s going to die. The movie sets this up as an East versus West kind of thing, but part of this is also temperamental. Billi, by temperament, is more individualistic than her extended family or her own parents. Hao Hao, her cousin, has been living in Japan like Billi has been living in the United States, and yet he seems willing to get married in haste in order to abide by some tradition that he, presumably, does not live by. Billi’s constant inquiry, frequent pushing, and refusal to take “Shut up and mourn” as the last word means that when she does make her goodbye (which the movie does kind of hamstring a smidge by including footage of Wang’s own still-living grandmother), she can do so on her own terms without having given into despair, like her uncle, or bitterness, like her mother.
The Farewell will be remembered for its wonderful acting performances (snubbed though they were by the Oscars, sigh) and its outstanding screenplay, which is balanced, layered with intellectual counterpoints that make a seemingly cold decision on the part of the family feel like the outpouring of love which it is intended to be; not only does the family bear the sadness and fear that Nai Nai would otherwise have to carry around in her last months, but it turns out that Nai Nai has kept such secrets before. This is a fairly brief movie, too, which makes it all the more remarkable that it can give as much time as it does to Billi’s deepening regret that she feels like she lost her family, especially her grandmother, years before the diagnosis ever roared in to snap her up. Despite sizable sequences of travel, driving around, wedding events, eating, there’s still time for the conversations that make the movie worthwhile. Every interaction between Awkwafina and Zhao Shuzhen is wonderful, either because Zhao is incredibly funny or because the two do seem to have a real chemistry that makes the hurt and lost years all the sadder. The element of the movie that I’m not sure gets enough appreciation is the cinematography, which places us at angles where there is just a little more space above the characters than you’d expect. It’s not Ida or anything, where the subtitles move to the top of the screen, but it provides a context which is so necessary for many viewers who understand even less of China than Billi does. By leaving more space at the top of the frame for us to see more of the buildings or the sky or the decorations hanging around, we get a better picture of the world that Billi fears she’s been missing out on.