10) Little Women
A movie in the melodramatic tradition, this Louisa May Alcott adaptation carries the audience on a wave of joyful highs and tear-jerking lows (people weren’t just crying, they were having emotional breakdowns in the theater). The interweaving flashback structure generates a powerful sense of nostalgia, which comes to a satisfying sense of resolution at the end. Warm as the day as long, Little Women benefits from a solid ensemble and clever construction.
9) A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
After Can You Ever Forgive Me, another excellent New York-tied movie from Marielle Heller, this time with added cinematic inventiveness (those establishing shots!). Fred Rogers’ aspirational idealism turns a mirror to the cynicism and false decorum of the other characters. Matthew Rhys is great in the lead role, the “broken” man who is changed by Mister Rogers. Not without its flaws, but lovely.
8) It Chapter Two
The first It is a solid movie, but I had no investment in it. In this sequel, there are several scenes that are surprisingly emotional for me. Look no further than the Losers’ Club reunion in the Chinese restaurant, an electric sequence of bittersweet warmth that turns into uncanny terror. The first two hours are excellent. A few wonky moments in the finale can’t taint this epic parade of jack-in-the-box horror, as director Andy Muschietti shows himself to be a showman in the grand guignol tradition, and my favorite actor Jessica Chastain further elevates the film.
7) Doctor Sleep
The second straight Stephen King adaptation on this list, Doctor Sleep walks the fine line of sequelizing both King’s novel The Shining and Stanley Kubrick’s iconic film. It’s a slow-burning dark supernatural fantasy, featuring stunning astral projection sequences. The wonderful Rebecca Ferguson plays the sadistic villain, and the movie itself must find her fun to watch as well, given how much screen time she gets. I don’t find Doctor Sleep or the It chapters particularly scary, but that’s not how I measure a horror movie, especially more ambitious ones like these. I’m here for some thrills, sure, but primarily for story and character.
This knife-sharp farcical thriller from Bong Joon-ho features an impoverished family of con artists inveigling themselves in the household of a rich family. Between Parasite and Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, it’s clear that class struggles and the perils of upward mobility loom large in Korean cinema. Parasite milks its premise for tension, silliness, and sobering outbursts of violence.
5) Knives Out
In some ways an old-fashioned detection-driven mystery puzzle, in other ways a hypermodern character-driven sociopolitical satire, and in every way addictively entertaining. Knives Out is one of those “obviously good” movies, given how much writer-director Rian Johnson accomplishes at once while having so much fun doing it. Daniel Craig is unforgettable as drawling private detective Benoit Blanc (an even better Southern accent for Craig after Logan Lucky’s Joe Bang), and Ana de Armas gives the film its heart.
4) Ad Astra
Strikingly sober, both as a piece of science fiction and as a character study… while still finding time to do Mad Max on the moon. From the cinematography to the production design to the visual effects, Ad Astra is cinematically gorgeous, a more than worthy successor to the Gravity/Interstellar/The Martian cycle. Brad Pitt has movie star presence, not by turning on the charm in the role of a gung-ho astronaut, but in a deeply bitter, internal performance. Last year we had another “emotionally closed off male astronaut gets the job done” movie in First Man, and I’m way more into this version of it.
3) Frozen 2
What a difference six years of technological advancement makes. Frozen 2 makes for a perfect companion piece to its predecessor, but its improved animation really makes it shine. That’s not even to mention the deep emotion, effective humor, and supernatural action, or of course, the songs. From the giddy “Some Things Never Change” to the soaring “Into the Unknown” to the Les Miserables riff “The Next Right Thing”, songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez have outdone themselves. Best of all is Elsa’s transformative song “Show Yourself”, accompanied by mind-blowing imagery that is a clear highlight in Disney’s entire animated canon.
Director Olivia Wilde delivers the goods with Booksmart, a hilarious and visually inventive coming-of-age one-crazy-night movie. This level of energy, tight screenwriting, and charismatic performance is pretty outstanding, as rare as a coelacanth sighting. Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein generate out-of-this-world chemistry. That pairing alone would probably have been enough to carry a movie, but they’re aided by every other department around them firing on all cylinders as well. Booksmart, Good Boys, and Blockers prove you can be “woke” and extremely funny at the same time, no matter what some in the industry may think.
Sticking the landing for a 22-film saga, Avengers: Endgame is a game of thirds. A melancholy first act, a romp of a second, and a triumphant third coalesce with a mastery of structure and tone. One of the missions of the movie is to honor the original six Avengers, giving particularly note-perfect send-offs to Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers. But it is to the film’s credit that it also honors characters like reformed villain Nebula (Karen Gillan), making her character growth an explicit part of the plot. Given how the MCU has been playing at such a high level, Endgame’s creative success as a full cinematic meal doesn’t exactly surprise, but how rich a culmination it is may be more than its fans could have hoped for.