NYT’s best movies of 2019

December 27, 2019 • 1:00 pm

This was a lean moviegoing year for me: although there were lots of movies I wanted to see, I was busy much of the time, and the venue where I usually watch movies, the DOC Film Series at Ida Noyes Hall (a University student operation that has a terrific large theater just two blocks from my place), has been going downhill in its film choices. (You can, however, buy a $30 pass that allows you to watch 30 films. And it’s the oldest college movie society in America.) It’s a sad fact that most of the movies I’ve watched this year have been on long-haul flights.

A few weeks ago the New York Times released its list of best movies of the year (click on screenshot)—actually, two lists of ten movies, one from each of its main movie critics. It turns out that I’d seen two of them, and it was two of the four that appeared on both lists.

First, the lists (each list at the NYT site links to the critic’s review). I’ve put asterisks by the movies appearing on both:

A. O. Scott

  1. Honeyland
  2. The Souvenir
  3. Parasite*
  4. The Irishman*
  5. Marriage Story
  6. Little Women*
  7. Peterloo
  8. The Edge of Democracy
  9. Once Upon a Time. . . In Hollywood*
  10. Atlantics

p.s. I just read Scott’s recent book on criticism, Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth, and found it pretentious, boring and unenlightening. It goes to show you that someone can excel at criticism but fail miserably when trying to analyze what they’re actually doing. Perhaps meta-analysis of criticism is a doomed enterprise.

Manohla Dargis

  1. Pain and Glory
  2. The Irishman*
  3. Parasite*
  4. Little Women*
  5. Once Upon a Time. . . In Hollywood*
  6. Synonyms
  7. Transit
  8. American Factory
  9. One Child Nation
  10. The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Scott talks about the dustup that occurred earlier this year when Martin Scorsese, a national film treasure, criticized mainstream movies in the U.S.

A big chunk of our collective attention — we don’t yet know how big, or with what consequences — is migrating to streaming platforms whose offerings include a lot of the stand-alone single-episode narratives that we used to see mainly in theaters. (Yes, I know: We saw a lot of sequels, too.) Movie theaters, meanwhile, are dominated by franchise, I.P.-driven spectacles like the entities in Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe, which Scorsese singled out, in an interview in Empire magazine and then in a New York Times Op-Ed, as “not cinema.”

The dust-up that followed his remarks was predictable. Members of the aggrieved superhero-loving community — some of whom draw Disney paychecks — tut-tutted Scorsese for being old, out of touch, overrated and, most of all, elitist. Accusing Scorsese (and his defenders) of elitism was exemplary pseudo-populism, a defense of corporate hegemony disguised as a celebration of mass taste. To question the apparent preferences of millions of consumers is to risk being labeled a snob.

In the imaginations of their sore-winner, alpha dog-underdog opponents, the snobs are simultaneously too dangerous to ignore and too enfeebled to take seriously. The response is basically, Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! Nobody’s listening to you anyway! And the anti-elitist argument is at bottom a matter of numbers, of quantity trumping quality. That “Avengers: Endgame” and “Joker” broke records at the global box office surely means something, even if the movies themselves don’t.

I’m an unapologetic elitist like Scorsese. I’ve tried watching “action” movies, “superhero” movies, spy movies, space movies, and the popular blockbusters that fill America’s tiny multiplex theaters, and they all seem the same to me: formulaic, commercial, lacking any interesting character development, and, in the end, they all come down to One Big Chase Scene. (An exception is the movie Ford v. Ferrari, which I watched and greatly enjoyed, but that included some great acting.) My perennial favorites, like Tokyo Story or Ikiru, or—my favorite American film—The Last Picture Show, would be seen as snoozers by most Americans. I confess that I sneer internally when I hear how this and that franchise movie broke opening-day records. But I rarely recommend my favorite movies to others, who have too often found them boring.

As I said, I saw two of the movies above. I’ve already mentioned Once Upon a Time. . . in Hollywood, which I saw on a flight and liked, even though it was on a tiny screen. It was classic Tarantino, but with some great acting by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt (and others), and not as weird as other Tarantino films.

The other I saw recently, and give an enthusiastic two thumbs up: The Irishman. I didn’t read any reviews of it on purpose—so I could give my take here (I do know that it got great ratings on Rotten Tomatoes). I will be brief, as I’m not a movie critic.

This being a Scorsese movie, of course it has Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro, but also stars Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa. Yes, this is a crime drama with an underpinning of fact, but it’s far more than spilled blood (of which there’s a lot). It’s Scorsese as Woody Allen, musing on the futility of everything, but also emphasizing that in this world nobody is pure—even President John F. Kennedy.

The story begins with De Niro (playing Frank Sheeran, a real mob hit man), waiting to die in a nursing home, looking back at a career that began uneventfully with the theft of a few sides of beef. (There’s a long tracking shot through the nursing home at the outset that reminds one of the restaurant scene in Goodfellas.)  Sheeran hooks up with Russell Bufalino, a mob boss played by Joe Pesci, who has lost his swagger with age.  Both men get involve with Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), whose ties to organized crime were well known.

The movie is 3½ hours long, but never boring. Against the ins and outs of the Northeast U.S. mob world, you’re drawn into a milieu where everyone is doomed, and everyone sells out somebody else to make a buck. Loyalty is at best temporary, and, in the end, all the principals get whacked or, worse, go to jail, degenerate with age, and die. (There is one redeeming note: De Niro’s daughter abandons him when she realizes that he killed Hoffa, a family friend.)

It is this sense of futility, of everything coming to nothing as death approaches, that has stayed with me, perhaps because mortality preys on me as well. And I wake up in the middle of the night thinking of the scene when all the principals still alive,  playing bocce in the prison courtyard, enfeebled or in wheelchairs. In the end, De Niro seeks absolution from a priest, seemingly unconvinced that he did anything wrong.

The three principals do a wonderful job, especially Pacino, who plays a wild card along the lines of Scarface, sealing his own doom with his egotism. It is a master class in acting, and especially notable for showing how Pesci, De Niro, and Pacino have aged not just in the movie, or among their diverse movies, but in assuming the ability to act the transition from middle age to old age.

I could go on, but why bother? You should see this movie. And I should see the other sixteen as well. If you’ve seen any of them, weigh in below.

Here’s the trailer for The Irishman, which does give you a sense of the movie. Thank goodness that directors like Scorsese are still making movies that aren’t One Big Chase Scene.

49 thoughts on “NYT’s best movies of 2019

  1. Don’t see many movies. I did see the one Ford vs Ferrari. It was good. Also saw The Good Liar. It was also good but the story was a bit far out.

  2. Fascinating that “Joker” has made very few top anything lists.

    Critics, I understand, loathed that movie because of its supposed identity politics of showing a white male as victim.

    But it’s box office was in the billion+ range.

    I thought it was a visual and thematic brilliant movie. Hard, but brilliant and hypnotic.

    1. I mean the same people pushing the message that Joker was a movie about, defending, or celebrating “white incels” were also morbidly obsessed with the possibility of the movie triggering a theater shooting. Which didn’t happen. The whole sordid affair said a lot more about them than the movie.

      1. This “incels” angle never occurred to me when I saw “Joker”, which I liked a lot but is a hard movie to love. What I’d like to know is this: What did Martin Scorcese think of the movie? There’s no doubt that he saw it seeing that De Niro is in it AND because the movie is, as some critics noted, spiritually akin to “Taxi Driver.”

      1. I mean, if they need to fill up time that bad, how about some mime. Everyone loves mime. Not buying the dance routine at all.

  3. I’ve seen only two movies this year, both excellent. The documentary “Nureyev” (not the ‘biopic’ – another word I detest and don’t much care for ‘biopics’), and “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” which contains the best Jewish joke I’ve ever heard, only it wasn’t a joke, it was deadly serious, literally. You never knew what was going to happen at the Cohn family seders!

      1. Kist or list, Nureyev’s dancing was breathtaking. I don’t care if cineastes faulted the structure; but I did think that the interjection of interpretive dancing was unfortunate. The NYT said about that: “One maddening stylistic choice the filmmakers stick to is balletic dramatizations, by the British choreographer Russell Maliphant, of scenes from Nureyev’s life — a hokey dance riff on a hokey documentary staple. His pregnant mother dances in snowy ruins; his Russian friends dance on and around a table, and so on.

        That said, those scenes were easy to ignore.

        1. Easy to ignore when looking at that spectacular body dance! The only time I saw Rudy live he was dancing La Sylphide (not Les Sylphides), and was wearing a calf-length kilt🙀 I wanted to admire his thighs (and buns!)🥰

          1. What a shame! I found the image online. What on earth was the costumier thinking?! Only his knees show; well, I hope you got a good gander at them.

      1. Matt Tyrnauer, the director, relates the incident far better than I can:

        “I interviewed three members of Roy Cohn’s extended family, and they all confirmed one of the most crazy stories I had ever heard about my subject. At a Passover Seder in the 1950s, the Cohn-family maid dropped dead before dinner was served. Dora Marcus Cohn, Roy’s mother, arranged for the maid’s body to be hidden under a kitchen serving table, and swore the rest of the staff to secrecy, also neglecting to tell her guests that anything unusual had happened. A cousin, Gary Marcus, who, as the youngest male present at the Seder, asked the four questions of Passover, told me that when he asked the first question, ‘Why is this night different from all other nights?,” Dora blurted out, “Because the maid is dead in the kitchen!'”
        https://airmail.news/issues/2019-9-21/the-trump-mentor. No one really believed her, they thought she might have lost her mind. Then someone went into the kitchen and found the maid, dead as described and under the table.

        1. Roy Cohn is a very evil man. The connection to him and Trump can’t be overstated. After all, the title of the film is a Trump tweet or quote (is there a difference anymore?).

  4. Want to see Parasite and Pain and Glory, both of which we missed at TIFF this year (big Almodòvar fan!). Did see Peterloo, which was quite good, and loved Once Upon a Time in Hollywood!

  5. A good Grunge discussion re The Irishman and the likely reality of the characters & events covered in the film.

    This was a drama which should have been 45 minutes shorter or at least six hours longer [as a series] – the momentum was lacking throughout & even the long tracking shots were glacial compared to say Casino or Goodfellas. Plenty of off key scenes in the film e.g. the 35? year old version of Sheeran/De Niro giving Joe the shopkeeper a right old kicking as he lay on the pavement was unintentionally comical, they should have got a young body double for that scene as it was beyond 76 yo De Niro [or any actor bar a couple] to play a vigorous, young thug while in their eighth decade. And the glass in the doors falling out like the fake sugar glass they use in films? Rubbish.

    Too many old geezer ‘names’ getting their screen time in doing overly long conversations saying stuff that could have been built into the narrative in a filmic manner [jump cuts & the like]. Lotsa self indulgent acting from ‘names’ – not worth a second look.


    1. I couldn’t agree more. So the film shows the futility of it all. That’s a sentiment that applies to the gangsters not me.

    2. Oh yeah, walking & kicking in those ‘lifts’ on his feet LOL. The real Frank Sheeran was 6’4″ & a bloated, boozy hulk.

  6. There’s a cinema two blocks from where I live. It has four screens and shows a mixture of first-run and arthouse fare (weekly series featuring foreign films, classics, small independents and documentaries, etc.) I average about two movies there of week — more during the annual film festival or for special screenings, and make the journey to the cineplex out on the highway every so often for a special showing of something that isn’t playing downtown.

    I think your review of The Irishman (and your analysis of the contretemps Scorsese) is spot-on. You sure your nephew didn’t give you a hand on this? 🙂

  7. I have seen several of the movies that made the list, but I wanted to mention two more that are late entries that are at least worth considering.

    They are Knives Out & Richard Jewel. Richard Jewel especially is worth watching.

    1. Richard Jewell was one of the movies I made the trip to the cineplex to see, since it didn’t play at my regular cinema. I thought it was a good, tight, competently directed drama (but then, Clint Eastwood is nothing if not a competent, efficient director — and sometimes much more than competent, as in Mystic River among other films).

      Good and taught and competently directed, but nothing special, I thought, except for the great performances by Paul Walter Hauser as Jewell (Hauser was also great as the low-rent thug who took a retractable truncheon to Nancy Kerrigan’s shin in the underrated I, Tonya), by Sam Rockwell as Jewell’s lawyer, and by Olivia Wilde as the reporter who broke the story.

      Clintwood got a deserved ration of shit, I think, for taking one particular liberty with the facts: having the late Atlanta-Journal constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs trade sex for a tip from the FBI agent played by Jon Hamm that Jewell was the leading suspect in the Olympic Park bombing. (Most women, I suspect, wouldn’t need such an excuse to bone Jon Hamm — but, hey, what do I know? 🙂 )

      Anyway, while I generally have no issue with filmmakers’ rearranging the facts for dramatic purposes, I thinks it’s unconscionable to asperse a real-life character like that, especially one who’s dead so can’t speak up for herself. Were Ms. Scruggs still among the quick, however, she might take solace knowing she was portrayed with such brio by the ever comely Ms. Wilde.

      1. One has to wonder why Eastwood would do this. He certainly has shown tendency toward republican views and going after the media is very Trump like. His treatment of the media and the FBI in this movie comes under suspicion.

        1. Eastwood made a fool of himself with his empty-chair Obama routine at the 2012 Republican National Convention (as I think even he understands). And he’s generally conservative, but I don’t think his politics are quite so easy to pin down.

          And I don’t think his politics are as ever present in his film-making as some people suppose.

          1. I remember it Charleston Heston. But I can’t look it up right now. Agree it is not right to twist the reporter the way Eastwood did.

          2. And one might also ask Eastwood, in making this stuff up, why do you name the woman but not the FBI agent?

          3. Pretty sure the FBI agent played by Hamm was a composite character. In the wild, they hunt in packs. 🙂

      2. It’s especially hypocritical to drag someone’s name through the mud in a film that’s moralizing about the press dragging someone’s name through the mud.

  8. I haven’t seen a lot of the movies making critics’ year’s best list. I used to be quite a cinephile, but it’s difficult because I travel 4 months out of the year, and my husband and I have very different tastes in cinema. My favorites of the year: Joker, Ford v. Ferrari, Judy, Bombshell, My Name is Dolemite, Gloria Bell, Marriage Story(probably the best).

  9. What, no love for Star Wars the Rise of Skywalker? What’s wrong with you readers!?! Just kidding.

    Thanks all for the tips and reviews. I’ve only seen Hollywood from the list. I’ve heard good things about Parasite and The Irishman and both are on the ‘list’. As with Tarantino, I’ll never miss a Scorsese film. I’ll check out some of the others mentioned in the comments as well.

    1. Sure wish I could have liked Parasite as much as the critics who have raved about it. Saw it in a large multiplex in San Francisco, the former Sundance Kabuki run by Redford’s group, but now an increasingly tawdry AMC. Parasite is worth seeing because how many weird Korean movies do we get? Quite interesting and good acting; bizarre story which starts low and then goes downhill — don’t want to spoil things for anyone….

  10. I recently re-watched the second-best British film noir, “Odd Man Out” (the first best, of course, is “The Third Man” by the same director). Interesting the way some old films age well. “Dr. Strangelove”, which I have seen almost as many times as “The Seventh Seal”, seems utterly brilliant each
    time around. Likewise “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”.

    I also had to see the latest “Star Wars” epic (because of the person I take to the movies every Sunday.) In it, every cliché of the Star Wars classics of the 70s is simply picked up and thrown against the screen. In the old ones, it was a shock when Darth Vader revealed that he was Luke’s father. In the new version, the protagonist is revealed to be the granddaughter of the evil emperor Palpatine. In the next epic, the main character will no doubt turn out to be a cousin by marriage of George Lucas. What a big shock!

    1. I recently saw Dial M for Murder again on the big screen during a noir retrospective. If we’re to consider that a “British film” (which I think we arguably should, given the provenance of Hitchcock and Ray Milland and the supporting cast, and its London setting), I think it holds up quite well, too.

  11. I watch a lot of movies at the ranch. My family was not with me this year, so I was alone in the bunkhouse each evening with nothing to do but watch films.
    I expected “Once upon a time…” to be great, and was not disappointed.
    “Dolemite” was better than I expected as well.

    A big surprise for me this year was “Yesterday”. It was really fun and sort of charming.

    Another one was “The Lighthouse”. I did not read much about it before watching it, but I am usually up for anything maritime. There was a time when the best compliment my group of friends could pay was to declare something or someone to be “Highly Nautical”. Dafoe gave a performance that probably could not have been more nautical. Eggers gave the whole thing the sort of claustrophobic feel that he gave “The Witch”, which I also loved. It also felt like authentic view of the time and place.
    But Dafoe just blew me away. Between that role and “Shadow of the Vampire”, he is just on a different level.

    1. The Lighthouse got my vote for the movie most unlike any other movie your likely to see this year — from its visual style, shot in high-contrast B&W, like something out of Fritz Lang or FW Murnau, and an old-fashioned aspect-ratio (that I think must be about 6:5, but looks almost square on the screen) to the pair of scenery-chewing performances out of its only two speaking roles, one from Willem Defoe, the other from the young English actor Robert Pattinson.

      It’s probably not for everyone, but I’ve recommended it to a number of friends.

      1. I had not thought about the framing and contrast relating to Murnau, but I really see it now that you mention it. I guess that is another link to Nosferatu.
        I also like that they provided an answer to something sailors have been pondering about mermaids.

        On the topic of mermaids, I want to recommend “Córki dancingu” , marketed in English as “The Lure”. It is a Polish dark comedy musical about mermaids, and provides a different answer to the same question. Fun but weird.

  12. Just saw Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood. I thought it was only alright.

    Re: mass-market movies vs. more artistic ones…IMO both camps are wrong. 🙂
    The ‘elitist’ camp is simply historically wrong that this is not cinema. Cheap thrill escapist movies have been part of the cinema-going experience the entire time it’s existed. The Avengers movies are nothing more than this generation’s Return of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. The Three Stooges started on the big screen, in 1930. The term “B-movie” was coined to the second movie of a double feature… which was often intentionally made lower budget, more ‘proletariat’ in nature. Like it or not, such movies are and always have been part of the movie industry…an intentional, designed part.

    The ‘populist’ camp is wrong in thinking such movies deserve the same artistic kudos as the more successful ‘arthouse’ type movies. They don’t. Movies are like novels; you’ve got your profound works of art, your summer beach reading, nobody should be trying to claim the latter is the former.

    But that’s okay. It’s okay to have both. it’s okay to like both (or just one, or the other). You can want one type one day, and the other type another day if you like. The variety of movie offerings is a strength of the industry, not a weakness. Yes, it would be a disappointing shame if all movies were Avenger-type movies. But it would also be a disappointing shame if all movies were Irishman-type movies. Because the best situation is when the full range is available for consumption.

    …all IMO, of course.

  13. I gave up on the New York Times’s film critics a few years ago. Their taste is fine (by my standards), but as writers neither Dargis nor Scott are on the level of Pauline Kael or Manny Farber.

    I also thought “The Irishman” was excellent. It removes all the spurious glamor that has grown around gangsters since the 1920s and shows them as they truly are: nihilistic, petty, expressions of corruption in society.

    I enjoyed “Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood” but I didn’t think it added up to much, despite the fine performances. Tarantino uses his counterfactual histories to indulge his sadism—since the characters on the receiving end are evil, the audience and Tarantino can engage in virtuous bloodlust.

  14. The movie I loved best this year was Parasite.
    Please watch it: like no Hollywood movie you have ever seen, the story of a desperately poor Korean family (who knew these existed?) who insert themselves, by deception, into a rich one, is so full of wit, nastiness, spite,intelligence, and gob-smacking twists and turns that you will wish to see it again just to comprehend how it builds and develops.
    I sense an (inferior) US remake.
    Also enjoyed WAATIH, also better on a second viewing as you can watch the story mechanics, and marvel once again at Brad Pitt fixing a rooftop ariel.

  15. I saw Little Women on Christmas day, and I liked it! Believe it or not, I never read the book or saw any of the elebenty seven earlier versions. I only knew a little about the story through osmosis.

    I found it really enjoyable. The costumes and scenery were beautiful, and I liked that every female character had a distinct… and not treacly… personality. Also, I didn’t know that Bob Odenkirk is in it until I saw him there! That was a nice surprise, because I really like his work.

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