The best movies of 2019 — from ‘The Irishman’ to ‘Queen & Slim’ – Chicago Sun-Times

Al Pacino (right) in a scene from “The Irishman.”
The year in movies was like the ultimate Mom Facebook Page.
So many reunions. So many updates on friends from long ago, so many surprising next chapters in so many lives — and so many heartfelt goodbyes to loved ones who passed away.
From “Avengers: Endgame” to “Toy Story 4,” from “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” to “Mary Poppins Returns,”from “Frozen II” to “It Chapter Two,” from the “Downton Abbey” movie to “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum,” from “Terminator: Dark Fate” to “Rambo: Last Blood” to “Glass” — the 2019 BSU (Big Screen Universe) was dominated by sequels and reboots and spinoffs and curtain calls.
Some of these sequels/reboots/etc. were critically acclaimed and/or immensely entertaining and deserving of their global popularity. (I was a big fan of “Endgame,” “Toy Story 4,” “Captain Marvel” and “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” to name a few.)
On the downside, my list of the WORST films of the year features more than a few “next chapter” disasters.
But amidst all this cinematic déjà vu, when it came time to select my favorite movies of the year, the clear standouts were all distinctively original and unique works.
Even the one remake on the list felt altogether fresh and new.
To anyone still intimidated by that 3 hours and 30-minute running time: click to any random spot on the timeline and watch for a few minutes. No matter where you’ve landed, you’ll be dropping in on a masterpiece — from Martin Scorsese’s direction to the performances of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, et al.
If that isn’t enough to persuade you to commit to the entire film, we should shake hands and go our separate ways.
A fading TV actor (Leonardo DiCaprio, right) is best friends with his former stunt double (Brad Pitt) in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
Columbia Pictures
Quentin Tarantino’s 1969-set, stylized, trippy, wickedly funny and revisionist opus perfectly encapsulates a time of seismic cultural shifts — not only in Hollywood but in virtually every corner of the country.
I loved every moment of writer-director Lulu Wang’s comedy/drama about a far-flung extended family that reunites in Changchun, China, when they learn “Nai Nai” (paternal grandmother in Mandarin) is dying. Awkwafina is stunningly good as Nai Nai’s granddaughter Billi, a Chinese American who has always felt like an outsider growing up in the states — but is just as uncomfortable when she returns home.
It’s hardly news when Adam Sandler flexes serious dramatic chops. From “Punch-Drunk Love” (2002) to “Reign Over Me” (2007) to “The Meyerowitz Stories” (2017), Sandler has consistently demonstrated his range — but he achieves next-level brilliance as a manic, self-destructive gambler in Josh and Benny Safdie’s disturbingly great “Uncut Gems.”
A hair touchup becomes a romantic moment for teens Alexis (Alexa Demie) and Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) in “Waves.”
So, what’s the one movie I might have missed this year but I should definitely check out? I hear some version of that question all the time. For 2019, the answer is “Waves.” Writer-director Trey Edward Shults’ family/crime drama is a masterful, insightful examination of a myriad of racial and social issues. It is my hope every single member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences sees Taylor Russell’s astonishingly memorable performance in this film, so she gets the best supporting actress nomination she richly deserves.
As 2019 comes to a close, noted Chicago Sun-Times film critic Richard Roeper, with help from WGN Radio’s Roe Conn, is counting down the best movies of the decade.
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Director Olivia Wilde, a quartet of gifted screenwriters (who all happen to be female), and the all-star, double-play onscreen combination of Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Deaver teamed up to deliver one of the funniest, smartest, fantastically ridiculous and yet relatable coming-of-age movies of the decade.
On some weird level, writer-director Julia Hart’s beautifully filmed, admirably risk-taking, “Twilight Zone”-esque, increasingly involving story of a mysteriously gifted, reluctant superhero reminded me of films such as “Phenomenon” and “Unbreakable.” Only it’s better. Also, as great as Gugu Mbatha-Raw is in “Motherless Brooklyn” and the Apple TV+ series “The Morning Show,” THIS is her defining performance of the year.
Florence Pugh (from left), Saoirse Ronan and Emma Watson play three of the March sisters in “Little Women.”
Sony Pictures via AP
Oh for God’s sake, is there REALLY a “manly man” backlash against the latest “Little Women” film? In just the last 18 years, we’ve had nine “Fast and Furious” movies about narcissistic, pumped-up, gym-obsessed, big men overcompensating by playing with their little cars. And yet a new version of “Little Women” is somehow tiresome and redundant and reductive?
For the record: The fearsome foursome in Greta Gerwig’s reinvention of the classic Louisa May Alcott story achieve a collective level of badassery and bravery rarely exhibited by the preening peacocks in those cartoon car movies. It’s difficult to imagine a 21st century male movie lover who would be so insecure he’d consider it a sign of weakness just to see this film.
After a sluggish start and some plot machinations straight out of an episode of “Modern Family” (combined with a few obvious callbacks to certain scenes in “Pulp Fiction”), Bong Joon-ho’s dark and funny thriller finds its stride and absolutely kills, in more ways than one.
Daniel Kaluuya as Slim and Jodie Turner-Smith as Queen in the film “Queen & Slim,” directed by Melina Matsoukas.
Universal Pictures
The easy shorthand labeled this film about a beautiful, outlaw couple on the run as “the black ‘Bonnie & Clyde,’ ” but it was actually more of an “ ‘Easy Rider’-meets-‘Thelma & Louise’ ” fable. Unlike the murderous career criminals Bonnie and Clyde, Daniel Kaluuya’s Slim and Jodie Turner-Smith’s Queen were law-abiding citizens who were turned into anti-heroes on the run after a traffic stop went horribly sideways. Thanks to a smart and nuanced and at times piercingly funny screenplay from the great Lena Waithe, the strong directing work by Melina Matsoukas and the captivating performances by Kaluuya and Turner-Smith, “Queen & Slim” has an impressively resonant stamp all its own.


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