Every year some colleague or acquaintance will say to me, “This just wasn’t a very good year for movies.” To which I respond, invariably, “It was a great year for movies!” There are always terrific movies, because there are still filmmakers who believe in making the most of the medium. The mechanics of how movies get to us is a bigger issue than ever: Specifically, how much effort are most of us willing to expend to see a movie on the big screen, the canvas filmmakers who are serious about their craft continue to believe in—and want to work in? That drama will continue to unfold. But for now, here are 10 films—plus a clutch of very honorable honorable mentions—that remind us what movies, at their best, can mean.
Two exotic dancers (Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez), both single mothers needing to provide for their families after the 2008 crash, hatch a highly illegal scheme to charm clueless Wall Streeters out of their money. Director Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers is lively and funny, as well as a reminder that it’s often women—and their children—who suffer most when an economic system driven largely by men collapses. When the going gets tough, the tough … hustle.
9. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Marielle Heller’s beautifully made film isn’t a biopic of celebrated children’s TV host Fred Rogers. Instead, it shows his ideas in practice, telling the story of an unlikely friendship between Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks) and a sour journalist (Matthew Rhys) riven with anger issues. Rogers was all about kindness, but Heller’s movie highlights another of his tenets: we have to give ourselves permission to feel everything in order to make peace with the things that threaten to tear us apart.
8. Dolemite Is My Name
Eddie Murphy stars as Rudy Ray Moore, the real-life performer who financed and starred in an ultra-low-budget 1975 movie—featuring a flashy hustler named Dolemite—that became both a hit and the stuff of legend. Directed by Craig Brewer, this movie is about ambition taking flight against all odds. It’s also pure joy, and as Dolemite himself would tell you, you never kick that out of bed.
7. Knives Out
Writer-director Rian Johnson’s ensemble whodunit—about a family fighting over the will of an eccentric mystery writer—is so beautifully made that it skims by in a flash. Ana de Armas gives a wonderful performance as the young woman, a nurse who also happens to be an immigrant, at the heart of the intrigue. This gorgeously layered film is great fun to watch, but it’s also perfectly placed in our era. We’re killing one another, but with something that’s the opposite of kindness.
Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s black comedy–thriller, about an impoverished family who scheme their way into an upper-crust household, artfully explores resentment between the haves and the have-nots. Even more striking is its deep humanity: both the scammers and the scammed earn our sympathy. Parasite is today’s answer to filmmaker Jean Renoir’s famous line, “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.”
5. Little Women
Greta Gerwig’s verdantly alive adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s evergreen 150-year-old novel—starring Saoirse Ronan as the ambitious and vibrant Jo March—captures the book’s spirit and heart. It also cuts to the reason Alcott’s ideas still resonate: she knew how it felt to yearn for something more, even when you’re not sure what that something more is.
4. Marriage Story
Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, both astonishing, star as a married couple in the midst of breaking up: To their horror, and ours, their at-first amicable split grows into a monster they had no idea they were capable of creating. This is Noah Baumbach’s most emotionally ragged movie, an acknowledgment that compromises aren’t nuisances that detract from life; they’re the stuff it’s built on.
3. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino concocts a fantasy in which Sharon Tate—the actor murdered by Manson family members in 1969—gets the much happier ending she deserves. Margot Robbie plays Tate in a small but potent role; she’s the patron spirit of a late-1960s Hollywood in which a has-been actor (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double and buddy (Brad Pitt) struggle to find their place. This is Tarantino’s most affectionately detailed picture, filled with tenderness for a lost Hollywood, and a lost era of filmmaking.
2. The Irishman
The world doesn’t need another gangster movie, not even one from Martin Scorsese—or so you may have thought before The Irishman. Scorsese’s 3½-hour saga is based on the story of real-life low-level mobster Frank Sheeran (played, superbly, by Robert De Niro), who claims to have killed Jimmy Hoffa (a marvelous Al Pacino), the onetime Teamsters president who disappeared in 1975. For roughly its first two-thirds, The Irishman is hugely entertaining. Then it shifts into something far more complex. It’s a melancholy mob epic.
1. Pain & Glory
In any life, there’s only so much time to do all we want and need to do. In Pedro Almódovar’s Pain & Glory, Antonio Banderas gives the performance of a lifetime as 60-ish filmmaker Salvador Mallo—a stand-in, more or less, for Almódovar himself—who’s in so much physical pain that he’s uncertain whether he’ll ever work again. Worse yet, his suffering is so intense that he may not care; instead of life after death, he’s settling for death before death, a premature leave-taking that’s a betrayal not just of his gifts, but of the time on earth any of us are given. But an anniversary screening of one of his older films sets off a chain of events that shifts everything: A lost love reappears as if conjured from a dream, and other bits of his past—particularly recollections of his mother, played as a young woman by a radiant Penelope Cruz—reassemble into a joyous, haunting interior monologue that demands to be explored visually, through his art. Pain & Glory may be Almódovar’s most resplendent and moving film, a panorama of vibrant paint-box colors and even more intense emotions—and a hymn to the mysterious whatever-it-is that keeps any of us going, in the years, months or days before our bodies betray us.
Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire; Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum; James Gray’s Ad Astra; Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart; Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s American Factory; Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s Birds of Passage; Sam Mendes’ 1917; Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria Bell; Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn.