1. Parasite – Bong Joon Ho and Jin Wan Han (original)
A transcendent crime story that balances the books on the inherently corrupt capitalist/class system. With elements that go back as far as Crime and Punishment and High and Low, this film uses a structural sequence similar to the old proverb, “For want of a nail the shoe was lost…” What is unique here is not the crime or the punishment, but how weird the karmic trip is to get to the punishment. The real crime will be if the Parasite script loses Best Screenplay to Marriage Story, 1917, or Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, which aren’t in the same league as this original work.
2. Jojo Rabbit – Taika Waititi (adapted)
A black comedy/satire about a ten-year-old Nazi youth whose imaginary friend is Hitler. It’s Moonrise Kingdom in Nazi Germany, and that’s what makes it work so well. Some will feel that you can’t make light of the Nazis and especially not of Hitler. But by showing the phenomenon through the eyes of a young believer, Waititi has given us an emotional understanding of how ideology corrupts a mind and how encountering the Other in the flesh can defeat it.
3. Brittany Runs A Marathon – Paul Downs Calaizzo (original)
Don’t be fooled. This isn’t an addiction story. The surprising character work makes all characters both likeable and unlikeable, with witty dialogue and a big emotional payoff. That alone makes the plot more interesting than better known bloated epics that hit the same beat for 3 ½ hours. The sleeper picture of the year.
4. Bombshell – Charles Randolph (original, based on a true story)
This hard-hitting and surprisingly funny exposé tracks Roger Ailes’s sexual harassment of three women at Fox News. If you didn’t already know that Ailes was one of the most despicable and destructive human beings in the history of the United States – which suggests you must have been a captive of Planet Fox News – this gives detailed proof. It also shows the depth of moral corruption of Ailes’s minions, including a number of female enablers like his executive secretary and his wife. The worst part of the film is that it makes Megyn Kelly too heroic, with only a brief attack on her for her years of silence while this bastard continued abusing women. The best part of the film is that it shows that sexual harassment isn’t just something women have to get over, or it only happens to attractive women, though all three of these actresses are. It cripples and destroys women’s lives, and I don’t know a single woman who hasn’t experienced it. Men like Roger Ailes are cowards, liars, bullies, and killers of souls and they should all go to jail for a long, long time.
5. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood – Tom Junod, Noah Harpster, Micah Fitzerman-Blue (adapted)
A film with one of the more bizarre and creative story structures I’ve seen in years packs great cumulative emotional power. It’s really a traveling angel story with Mr. Rogers as the angel. And he’s a lot more complex than you might think.
7. Knives Out – Rian Johnson (original)
Television is built on the detective genre and does it extremely well. So Knives Out had to meet a high standard. It does, flipping the form in a number of ways, some brilliantly, others not. But it’s enough to make this one of the few true detective stories to get to the big screen since LA Confidential. If you love the form, you should see this. If not, it will come across as a lot of convoluted sound and fury, signifying nothing.
7. Little Women – Greta Gerwig (adapted)
An actor’s version of the classic that puts a premium on grand gestures. This film is structured around a series of buzzing household moments and girls hugging. It begins with a confusing framing device and meanders on two separate time lines. About halfway through, it funnels to the love story and catches fire. The ending is quite moving. I could have done without the meta moment, but this is a real achievement for Greta Gerwig as a writer. As an aside, I find it fascinating how much Louisa May Alcott was influenced by Jane Austen. Aren’t we all.
8. The Irishman – Steve Zaillian (adapted)
The Irishman hits the same beats, ad infinitum, as Scorcese’s past gangster stuff, but it doesn’t compare to Goodfellas in depicting the process of people being sucked into crime and slavery. Why? For one thing, Goodfellas is a screenwriting masterpiece. This is not. The moral investigation in The Irishman is not compelling because from the beginning this guy has no moral problem with murder. Therefore, his self-questioning at the end has little emotional resonance. If you kill people for a living, eventually you are going to feel bad when you have to kill someone you care about. The daughter’s moral attack has almost no effect because she is rarely seen throughout the story. Had the writer (and director, since he gets all the credit anyway) spent less time hitting the same beat of Jimmy Hoffa vs. the mob and more on the costs to the hero and his family, the moral accounting could have paid off big time.
9. Once Upon A Time in Hollywood – Quentin Tarantino (original)
A movie combining a fake western and a real western, a fake hero and a real hero. Which sounds intriguing, except that it’s not played out dramatically. With so much time spent driving around town, watching movies, hanging out in backstage Hollywood, the episodic first half is a snore. It gets interesting when Brad goes to the ranch, funneling to the final obligatory Tarantino gore in the showdown. But even the good stuff is not that good. What’s the point? Though I could say the same thing about most Tarantino movies, especially the last few. I guess it’s just fun being back in 1969.
10. Joker – Todd Phillips and Scott Silver (adapted)
An anti-superhero movie that ties in nicely with the Batman origin story. It tracks the creation of a serial killer and makes it emotionally believable. But it’s one scene after another establishing the character’s weakness-need. I get it. The guy is screwed and screwed up. A bit more plot with the character work, please.
11. Two Popes – Anthony McCarten (adapted)
My Dinner with Andre in the Vatican, but without the dinner and without the wit. It’s a long but surprisingly engaging conversation between a conservative pope and the liberal cardinal who may replace him. Two Popes is more watchable than you might think, partly because the conservative realizes the liberal is right. Yes, it’s a fantasy film.
12. Booksmart – Emily Halpern & Sarah Haskins and Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman – (original)
Amusing, but not the treat it’s supposed to be. The set up is absurd: after finding out their deadbeat friends have also gotten into Ivy League schools (apparently it’s surprisingly easy), two nerdy girls decide to make up for their straight arrow existence in one night of fun. Yeah, that should do it. A string of hilarious hijinks ensues. Except that they aren’t hilarious and they’re all the same beat. This was pitched as a fresh take on the high school experience, but with so many elements from Romy and Michelle and Fast Times, I didn’t see it. These girls are trying really hard to be quirky, but their buddy shtick goes on so long they just come across as annoying. It really lost me when the teacher joins the party.
13. Judy – Tom Edge and Peter Quilter (adapted)
Judy Garland at the bottom of her life, taking her last shot. This film is deeply depressing as you watch one of the great talents of the 20th century fall from the accumulation of assaults she suffered since she was a child. Yes, she makes more than her share of mistakes. But she comes across as a hero fighting the unwinnable fight. Judy is hard to get through, but if you hold on you will see the most powerful emotional scene of the year. If you don’t cry in that scene, have them put you out of your misery. Because you’re already dead. I don’t see how anyone beats Renée Zellweger for Best Actress.
14. 1917 – Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns (original)
Spare me from cinematic experiments like this one where we walk though the trenches and across no man’s land in real time in what appears to be a single take (it’s not). There’s a reason the cut is the key technique in film. It gets rid of the boring parts. This is Saving Private Ryan goes to WW I (which was Seven Samurai goes to WW II), but without the plot. Did anyone not know what was going to happen from the original setup? A life and death obstacle course/video game with more than a few unbelievable moments. I know this is supposed to be an immersive experience. But beware of the fallacy of creating a boring experience to show the boredom and stupidity of war. This is the most overrated screenplay of the year.
15. The Rise of Skywalker – J.J. Abrams & Chris Terrio, Derek Connolly & Colin Treverrow (completely unoriginal)
The Rise of Skywalker was never going to be an Oscar contender, but this bloated mess marks the sad end (we hope) of what was once a great series. It’s not as bad as Rian Johnson’s embarrassing The Last Jedi. But that’s only because J.J. Abrams et al. throw everything at you so fast you don’t have time to realize how stupid it is. The worst part about the film isn’t the massive plot holes or the repetition of the same beats we’ve seen a thousand times before. It’s that the character beats and the attempts at real emotion come across as totally phony and unbelievable. No, I take that back. The worst part is that there are more resurrections than a Holy Rollers convention and Luke looks like a bobblehead doll.
16. Marriage Story – Noah Bumbach (original)
Cinema as dental drilling. This is lawyer story, not marriage story. She comes across as the heavy from the beginning when she decides to use a lawyer after they agreed not to. She also seems like a dummy for falling for the bullshit from her smarmy lawyer. A talking heads movie that hits the same beat forever and makes The Irishman seem like a short film. It also leaves the false impression that women end up better off from divorce when the reality is they usually end up totally screwed.
17. Hustlers – Lorene Scafaria, Jessica Pressler (adapted)
A group of strippers drug Wall Street guys and steal their money. That describes the whole movie and the only plot beat in the movie. This film achieves the impossible of making you feel bad for Wall Street guys.
18. Dolemite Is My Name – Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski (original)
Until I saw Uncut Gems, this was the worst movie I saw this year. There’s no story. The hero faces zero obstacles in gaining success. It’s not funny. Yet some reviewers say it’s one of the best movies of the year. Incomprehensible.
19. Uncut Gems – Ronald Bronstein & Josh Safdie & Benny Safdie (original)
A self-professed fuck-up makes a colossally stupid move to start the film and then somehow gets dumber. What a waste of two hours of my life.