My top films of 2020

To say that 2020 was a transitional year for film would be a massive understatement. All anyone could seem to talk about when it came to entertainment news was the Coronavirus pandemic. The ensuring confusion caused theaters to shut down and forced studios to either postpone their expensive blockbusters or attempt a digital mode of distribution in the hopes of drawing people to pay for streaming platforms (Mulan on Disney+ and WW1984 on HBO Max being the most notable examples).

The relative disappearance of high-profile event cinema throughout the year caused many movie fans to bemoan a perceived lack of quality content. Thankfully, the reality is that 2020 was a terrific year for cinema, if not for “movies” in the traditional sense. There was so much to celebrate in the cinematic-year-that-was. For one, stellar documentaries gained widespread acclaim on many streaming platforms, running the gamut from indie oddities like “My Octopus Teacher” and “Dick Johnson is Dead” to highly anticipated events like “Crip Camp” and “Boy’s State.” Not to mention that my favorite film of 2020 happens to be a documentary (see more below).

Another highlight of 2020 was the number of female directors stealing the spotlight and dominating the awards conversations. Yes, women got some blockbuster love with Niki Caro helming Disney’s “Mulan” live-action remake, but female-led efforts also dominated the critical conversation. For example, Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman,” Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow,” Regina King’s “One Night in Miami,” Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland,” and Radha Blank’s “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” to name just a few.

But perhaps the most important highlight of 2020 was the sheer amount of quality black voices. In a year that featured massive civil unrest as protests against unjust treatment of black men at the hands of police reached a fever pitch, the movies kept pace by giving us soulful, emotional black stories, ones that defied easy categorization and thankfully steered clear of “black Oscar bait” or “white savior” tropes. Special recognition should go to Steve McQueen for his sensational “Small Axe” anthology, released on Amazon Prime. But compelling stories from people of color were everywhere. I’m thinking of the tragic passing of Chadwick Boseman and his blistering performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” almost certain to win him a posthumous Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Other standouts include the devastating documentary “Time,” Spike Lee’s magnum opus “Da 5 Bloods,” Kemp Powers’ one-two punch co-writing both “Soul” and “One Night in Miami,” Aaron Sorkin’s sensitive treatment of the Black Panthers in “Trial of the Chicago 7,” and the fight against black voter suppression documented so powerfully in “All In: The Fight for Democracy” and “Slay the Dragon.”

2020 was a chaotic year for Hollywood. But, out of that chaos, lovers of cinema had almost unprecedented access to a variety of voices and perspectives, making the year a rich cinematic journey for those willing to seek out its many treasures.

And now, my 10 favorite films of 2020, along with my 11-20 picks at the end. I hope you enjoy!

10. The Invisible Man

Thanks to the lack of available theatres to screen them, this was a sad year for traditional genre films. Thankfully, The Invisible Man came out in February, so a few folks still got to see it on a big screen (or on demand, where it hit shortly after theaters shut down). And this one was more than worth checking out for fans of quality horror/thriller movies. Helmed by actor-turned-director Leigh Whannel who made a name for himself with the severely underrated action flick “Upgrade,” this modern update of the classic universal monster story is heart-pounding nail-biter from its terrifying opening scene to its savagely brutal and cathartic ending. It should be no surprise that Elisabeth Moss is amazing in this, but the way she imbues Cecilia with a weighty determination to not only survive, but get revenge on her murderous ex-lover makes her a feminist badass almost on par with the likes of Ripley from “Alien.” This is one of those “water cooler” movies, where everyone who sees it must talk to someone else about just how cool the whole thing was. This is the unfortunately rare thriller that just simply works, and works with style, from beginning to end.

9. First Cow

Writer-director Kelly Reichardt has earned herself a small but vocal following among cinephiles who swoon over her richly drawn characters and slavish attention to period detail in films like “Meek’s Cutoff,” “Wendy and Lucy” and “Certain Women.” Though I hesitate to say that “First Cow” will win her tons of new fans, it is certainly the best film she has made to date. The script, adapted from a novel by Jonathan Raymond, is so fascinating that it you almost forget you aren’t really watching much “happen” in terms of plot. But no film this year has felt more richly lived-in than this; the grimy re-creation of 19th century Oregon is a stark reminder of the savagery and poverty that drew such a stark contrast with the stunning natural beauty of the land. At her best, Reichardt draws favorable comparisons to Terrence Malick, and that comparison fits here.

But, what really makes “First Cow” such a memorable experience is the relationship at its center. No, not between man and cow, although such a bond is present. I’m talking about the unlikely friendship between traveling chef Cookie (a quietly compelling John Magaro) and Chinese immigrant King-Lu (Orion Lee). The film telegraphs early on that these two will form a strong bond, but the actors sell that idea and draw us ever closer to the intimacies of the story, little by little. This is a film that speaks with a quiet and reverent voice, which somehow makes its impact even more powerful. Sometimes, we need to slow down and appreciate the beauty of a simple story, exquisitely told.

8. Dick Johnson is Dead

What a kooky, heady, weird, profound delight this film is. Kirsten Johnson’s strange tribute to her father is both a love letter to a man and a mourning, as that man slowly suffers from the effects of dementia. This somber meditation sets director Johnson’s mind on the inevitability of death, and she has an interesting mode of therapy: theater. That is, dressing her father up and “killing” him in various ways. He falls down a flight of stairs. He is struck by falling debris. He acts out his own funeral and a fantasy sequence where he enters Heaven’s gates. The humor is, obviously, pretty dark, and the behind-the-scenes footage of how the “kills” were set up, complete with stunt doubles and squib packs, doesn’t lessen the shock of seeing Dick die over and over.

But the movie works mostly because it is so funny. Richard Johnson is an absolute character, and I’m thankful that Kirsten decided to share him with the world. His ability to so willingly go along with his daughter’s bizarre experiments reveal a sweet and tender man who is also absolutely down for pretty much anything. You will cackle with laughter, but watch out, because the very next scene may have you reaching for tissues, as it did me. This movie is weird, but, much like “The Act of Killing,” the artifice of the drama allows us to approach some heady topics in a way that doesn’t feel like a manipulative chore. Leave it do a “dead” man to teach us all what it means to live.

7. Sound of Metal

“’Sound of Metal’ is the kind of riveting drama you have to unglue your eyes from the screen after watching. I felt such a special connection to the characters and themes of this film, and I appreciate everyone involved for making such a raw, compassionate dramatization of the experience of being deaf.

Riz Ahmed’s award-worthy performance as Ruben, a drummer in a metal band who quite suddenly and inexplicably loses his hearing, gives us a unique outsider’s perspective into coming to terms with a disability and the prospect of a radically changed life. Ruben, like many of us would, I suppose, does not transition gracefully into his disability. In fact, he is constantly scheming to raise money for a costly procedure that he believes will restore his hearing and allow him to resume a semblance of a normal life with his faithful girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke). But Ruben is also a recovering drug addict, and so he ends up in a recovery center run by a man named Joe (a scene-stealing Paul Raci), who has plans for Ruben to integrate into the community and accept his disability as part of his new normal. But Ruben still has other plans for his future.

Along with the phenomenal performances, the film is also particularly noteworthy for its sound design, which is some of the best I have ever heard in a movie. The sound really immerses us into what Ruben is hearing at any given moment, as conversations become muted muddles and we struggle and strain to hear something, anything that sounds like normal. The cumulative effect is overwhelming, and it speaks to the power of cinema to take a very familiar redemptive story arc and imbue it with new life. I wouldn’t call the ending of the film happy, per se, but it does feel true, and I so badly want Ruben to be happy that I will follow him anywhere. It takes a special film to engender that kind of emotion, and “Sound of Metal” is certainly that.

6. Da 5 Bloods

Veteran director Spike Lee’s follow up to his incredible “BlacKkKlansman” is another oddly titled and extraordinarily unsubtle examination of the legacy of violence. Infused with Lee’s singular and urgent voice, “Da 5 Bloods” did not disappoint.

Following a squad of black U.S. Army Veterans as they reunite in Vietnam in the hopes of digging up some buried gold, the film, in both playful and serious ways, powerfully explores the issues of black patriotism and the ways in which PTSD affects the machismo of the soldier who is either unable or unwilling to move on from the sins of the past. These themes are fleshed out with fascinating details, such as the fact that Paul (an amazing Delroy Lindo) wears a MAGA hat and gets ribbed by his fellow vets for being a Trump supporter. As the film moves on, the violence becomes surprisingly graphic, as the injustice of unexploded land mines serves as another visual reminder of the horrors of war being passed down through the generations.

It should be noted that much of the film’s power lies on the shoulders of the late Chadwick Boseman. Along with his astonishing performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” his performance here as the heroic Stormin’ Norman was one of his last, and best. Although Norman was killed in the war, the legacy of everything he meant to his squad mates permeates almost every scene, and Boseman’s presence hangs heavy over the entire film. In a film full of provocative themes and stellar performances, his stands out as something truly special. He is, undeniably, a legend.

5. Boys State

As an alumnus of the California Boys’ State 2008, I eagerly awaited the arrival of this intimate documentary. I was even more excited when I realized that this exhaustively deep dive into the intricacies of mock politics was being brought to us by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, who graced us with one of my top 10 (maybe even top 5) documentaries of all time, “The Overnighters.” And I’m glad my excitement was not overblown, because this one is pretty damn good, too.

No movie this year captured our current political moment quite as potently as “Boy’s State.” Following a Texas delegation of high school juniors, chosen by the American Legion, to gather at the state capitol for a week and create their own mock government from the ground up, the film expertly threads the needle between giving viewers both hope and horror for the future of our nation. We watch as idealism is quickly overrun by blind party loyalty, as teenagers espouse values to a crowd that they themselves admit in private to not believing in. We watch the cutthroat use of social media to demonize “the other side,” taking them out of context and mocking them for their perceived hypocrisies. It’s all rather exhausting.

And yet, the film reminds us that there is hope for the future in those who find things worth fighting for. This hope is exemplified most clearly in Steven Garza, a passionate advocate for gun reform who tries to mollify a rabidly pro-second amendment populace in his race to become the “governor” of Texas over the brilliant and fiery conservative Ben Feinstein. It is a cutthroat competition, but when the dust settles, many of the boys are surprisingly reflective about how it all went down, and how easily they reverted to their baser instincts and abandoned their better angels to win. This is all presented through breathtakingly thorough camerawork and brilliant editing and music. It’s truly the documentary as art form, and also as democratic self-reflection—chances are, though, that you may not like what you find staring back at you.

4. I’m Thinking of Ending Things

It’s safe to say that writer-director Charlie Kaufman is an acquired taste. From generally beloved weird classics like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Being John Malkovich” to more impenetrable head-scratchers like “Synecdoche, New York,” the groundbreaking auteur has garnered his share of diehard fans as well as naysayers. His latest effort, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” based on the book by Iain Reid, is unlikely to change many hearts and minds. And yet, for the Kaufman diehards (and the adventurous cinema fan), it’s an absolutely rapturous experience.

Kaufman’s scripts tend to excel at conveying the interior life of the mind through both trippy visuals and idiosyncratic dialogue, and this is perhaps the most purely entertaining and clear use of those elements. From the long, heady car-ride conversations between a “young woman” (played by a never-better Jessie Buckley—and yes, that’s really the character’s name) and her eccentric boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemmons), to unforgettable images like an ice cream stand in the middle of nowhere and an animated, maggot-infested pig, the film is designed to sear into your memory, regardless of whether you really understand all that is going on by the end.

Here, I think, is an important distinction between “Ending Things” and, say, Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” another highly anticipated 2020 film. “Tenet” is a headscratcher wrapped inside of an enigma, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that, while you need to watch it twice to comprehend everything that happens, you’re not sure there’s much “there” there to chew on. With this film, I got to a point where I was enjoying the journey more than the destination, and I would gladly watch it again to help myself unravel some of those threads. There’s a difference between complex and complicated and I think Kaufman walks that line brilliantly here.

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” comes with many caveats. Watch it without having any idea what it’s about. Immerse yourself in the stellar performances and rapturous cinematography (brought to us by the wonderful Polish cinematographer Lukasz Zal). Don’t watch the film if you’re dealing with depression, because, as enjoyable as it is, it is also existentially bleak and immensely heavy. You may find yourself needing a nap when it’s all over. But oh, the dreams you will have!

3. Soul/Wolfwalkers

This past year graced us with two animated classics. I loved them both so much, I decided to give them a shared spot.

“Wolfwalkers” is the true masterpiece of Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon’s impressive body of work. The third of director Tomm Moore’s unofficial “Irish folklore” trilogy, it is, put bluntly, the most beautiful animated film ever made. Cartoon Saloon has always excelled at invigorating traditional hand-drawn animation with an M.C. Escher-like energy, but the advances in technology, along with the gorgeous lines and vibrant colors, give the film the feeling of a painting come to life. There’s no way the story would have had the same impact if it was done with CGI animation, and it’s a testament to the power of the medium that a traditional 2D animated feature can still inspire such awe and wonder.

The story is not exactly revolutionary. A sheltered city girl who befriends a half-human, half-wolf, helps her tribe fight back against encroaching industrialization that threatens their home and their ancient connection to the land. At times, it reminded me very much of Hayao Miyazaki’s “Princess Mononoke.” But “Mononoke” is my all-time favorite animated film, so I guess if you’re going to borrow, it might as well be from the best. Regardless of its inspirations, “Wolfwalkers” should rightly be considered a classic, thanks to its stunningly beautiful animation and richly defined characters.

While we’re on the subject of beautiful animation, let’s talk about “Soul,” Pixar’s latest original stunner. The great Pete Doctor (who helmed such favorites as “Monster’s Inc.,” “Inside Out” and “Up,”) returns for another ambitious, joyful and thoroughly profound film. From first frame to last, “Soul” is bursting with creativity, imagination, and heart. Of course, we’ve come to expect nothing less from the geniuses at Pixar, but they have hit a few snags in recent years. This is no snag.

This is the kind of flick that, were you to watch the trailers, you think you would have figured out, or at least understand the general direction it was going. Thankfully, Doctor and co-writer Kemp Powers manage to blindside us at every turn as the tale of jazz musician Joe Gardner and his increasingly desperate efforts to re-unite his spirit with his body after “dying” take on more elaborate and profound implications. Much as Docter did with “Inside Out,” he is obviously grasping for topics, emotions and themes that are way outside the bounds of traditional kids’ movies. Even for a company known for taking risks, it’s somewhat of a miracle that this ever got the green light. It is a weird movie, and I mean that as the highest compliment. I’d also make the argument that, like much of Docter’s other work, it’s not really a very good “kids” movie. Many of the ideas the film delves into are not exactly ones you want babysitting your child, prone as they are to reflecting on the afterlife, religion, art, and the meaning of life. But then, Pixar doesn’t often make movies to occupy kids’ imaginations. Instead, they desire to challenge them in ways that a parent should probably be on hand to discuss afterwards. All I can say for the adults in the audience is that “Soul” is everything I want in an animated movie. The fact that it is drop-dead gorgeous and features a superb score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (along with compositions by the great Jon Batiste), make it even more endearing. For those who love art, music, or life in general, “Soul” is a deeply moving adventure that may just help you discover your purpose in life. How many animated movies can you say that about?

2. Small Axe Anthology

The question has bounced back and forth across the internet: Is Steve McQueen’s five-film “Small Axe” anthology series, released on Amazon, a movie, or a limited TV series? When we have stories this personal and inspiring, who really cares?

McQueen has gifted lovers of quality filmmaking five beautiful stories of celebration and resilience, focused upon the struggles and the victories of the West Indian Immigrant community in London between the 1960s and the 1980s. All five films, while distinct from one another, are woven together in a broad tapestry that celebrates the importance of community and brotherhood in the fight for liberation and equality.

There are so many moments to celebrate in McQueen’s impeccably crafted and deeply emotional stories. The highlight, to my mind, is “Lovers Rock,” a near-perfect shout of joy that preaches the beauty of West Indian culture as a cast of memorable characters meet up at a house in West London. The swooning camerawork and incredible soundtrack are hypnotic in their celebration of black pride and the way that music is explicitly tied to the fight for people of color to let loose and be themselves.  

McQueen also tackles the struggle for racial justice as he chronicles the trial of the “Mangrove” 9 in the 1970s, where black freedom fighters must come up against an entire justice system designed to oppress them. The film is brilliantly written and anchored by stellar performances from Letitia Wright and Shaun Parkes. The struggle for justice continues with “Red, White and Blue,” which stars a riveting John Boyega as Leroy Logan, a black officer with the London Metropolitan Police who attempted to reform the racist attitudes of the organization from within.

The fight for black equality is given much funnier and lighter treatment in “Education,” which dramatizes the efforts of West Indian parents to get their children to receive academically equitable schooling, rather than resigning them to so-called “schools” for the “educationally subnormal.” It’s hard not to draw parallels to more modern strands of racism in education systems around the world, and some of the revelations of the film are indeed shocking. But it’s all handled with such a wonderfully light and humorous hand, and is anchored by a spirited Kenyah Sandy, one of the best child actors in recent memory.

Finally, there is the true story of “Alex Wheatle,” which chronicles the British novelist’s life, from his childhood in a mostly white institutional care home to his embracing of West Indian community in Brixton, to his incarceration during the Brixton Uprising in 1981. The film continues the theme of music as a unifying force in the anthology, as Wheatle gains a passion for music and DJing that imbue him with a sense of purpose and connection to his true ancestry. The film is lively and graces us with another bright young actor in lead Sheyi Cole.

Taken as a whole, “Small Axe” feels like a vital piece of art in a year where black people were faced anew with the struggle for equality. It may not seem like the George Floyd protests have anything to do with West Indian communities in London decades ago. With his trademark craftmanship and slavish attention to detail, McQueen has gifted us with an artistic statement on the ways that the cry for freedom rings throughout the generations, and how true loving community is the major healing force for oppressed minorities to find true liberation and purpose.

1. Time

This past year has been one of tremendous loss and grief for many. As we begin to pick ourselves up and put back the pieces, we begin to wonder how we account for the time we have lost. Garrett Bradley’s masterful documentary “Time” is a profoundly moving examination of one family’s struggle with that same dilemma.

Bradley combines extensive home video with original footage to give his audience an achingly accurate snapshot of what true loss looks like. Through this, we get to know the daily life of Fox Rich, an inspiring woman fighting for prison reform as she struggles to commute the 60-year prison sentence of her husband Rob, serving time in the Louisiana State Penitentiary for bank robbery.

Through Rich’s eyes, we see the exhausting struggle to fight what the world might call a losing battle, as Rich balances her mission of determination with her career and raising her children. In this process, we get an intimate glimpse into the injustices of the prison industrial complex and the devastation it can have on ordinary families, particularly families of color.

What makes the film even more intriguing is the fact that Rich robbed the bank with her husband and served time herself. These are not innocent or wrongfully convicted people. Thus, the film occupies a unique space in confronting these issues head-on: what does it mean to “repay a debt” to society, and how is that debt viewed by those who hold the keys to freedom?

These questions are driven home through stunning black and white cinematography, and astonishing camerawork, as Bradley lingers on faces and images that convey the anguish of waiting. This culminates in a breathtaking climax that delves into the fantasy of what it would look like to buy back time, recognizing, of course, that such a thing is impossible. “Time” reminds us that the passage of time is something we have no control over. What we do with that time, however? That is up to us.  

Honorable mention: Hamilton

I went back and forth on Disney’s filmed version of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Broadway smash hit “Hamilton.” Is this a movie? If so, it’s far and away the best I saw this year. But, in so many ways, it’s not a movie. Ultimately, I didn’t feel like it was fair to award something that has essentially been around for years—albeit, now, to a much larger audience—with a spot on my top 10 list. But I think it’s important to include a shout-out to it neverthless, because “Hamilton” is an absolutely incredible experience that shouldn’t be missed by anyone with a pulse. Look on YouTube any given day and you will see hundreds, if not thousands, of “Hamilton” parody videos. It’s a certified cultural phenomenon, and it deserves all of the accolades it has received and more. Shows like this come along rarely, so enjoy the brilliance for yourself. “Hamilton” is available to stream on Disney+.

My 11—20 picks:

  • 11. The Trial of the Chicago 7
  • 12. Crip Camp
  • 13. One Night in Miami
  • 14. The Forty-Year-Old Version
  • 15. The Social Dilemma
  • 16. Palm Springs
  • 17. My Octopus Teacher
  • 18. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
  • 19. The Vast of Night
  • 20. Mank

Blind spots:

2020 was a strange year; films that I would have likely gotten to see ended up being pushed back due to extended eligibility windows for awards. And so, several of the most celebrated movies of the year are absolutely nowhere to be found for the average moviegoer. With that being said, both “Nomadland” and “Minari” are to be considered 2021 movies for my purposes, since I can’t see them until February at the earliest.

Other films of note I have yet to see as of this writing include “Collective,” “Beanpole,” “Athlete A,” “Saint Frances,” “Bacurau,” “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets,” “The Assistant,” “Kajillionaire,” “The Painter and the Thief,” “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” “The True History of the Kelly Gang,” “Color Out of Space,” “The King of Staten Island,” “News of the World,” “Promising Young Woman,” “Tigertail” and “Bill & Ted Face the Music.” Let me know which of these are worth checking out!

My Top 10 Films of 2019

From one perspective, the year in cinema that was 2019 was a letdown. Massive flops, both critical and commercial, littered the Hollywood landscape. Even Disney, which had its most financially successful year on record, could be accused of running into a creative slump, with remakes and sequels winning out over more thoughtful original content.

And yet, for folks who see a lot of movies (like me), 2019 was easily the best year for film in recent memory. I would go so far as to say that it was my favorite year for film overall since I began this blog in 2012. Some of the industry’s most celebrate auteurs dropped new defining works (hello Tarantino, Malick, Scorsese and Baumbach), and I was consistently impressed with how many movies moved me or stunned me with their technical prowess (The Lighthouse and 1917 are two standouts on that front).

Sure, there were some disappointing films that didn’t live up to their potential, but I found a lot to like even in movies that weren’t technically great (It: Chapter Two and Godzilla: King of the Monsters are two of my greatest guilty pleasures of 2019). Overall, I’ve found so many movies this year that stretched the boundaries of what it means to make good art, and I was saddened putting together this year’s list to discover that so many wonderful movies did not have room in my top 10 or even my top 20.

2019 was truly a landmark year for cinema, and you will find not only my favorites of the year below, but also some of my favorites of the decade and perhaps even of all-time. Without further ado, here is my personal list of the top 10 films of 2019.

10. John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum

The latest and most vibrant evidence of the action movie as a true art form, this third film in Keanu Reeves’ increasingly popular action franchise is the best one yet. It’s a true stunner, with beautifully (and brutally) designed action sequences (hello horses!) along with a gripping story that continues to expand the intriguing mythos of this world of gentlemen assassins. I loved seeing more of Laurence Fishburne’s Bowery King, continuing the Matrix reunion we didn’t know we needed, and Asia Kate Dillon’s Adjudicator makes for an intimidating antagonist. Director Chad Stahelski is set to helm chapter 4 in 2021, and action afficionados like me are already counting down the days.

9. Us

Jordan Peele’s stunning follow-up to his electric Get Out is a much more epic affair, using the horror genre as a backdrop for a larger examination of racial identity in America and the ways in which systems marginalize the already vulnerable. The fact that Us is so immensely satisfying as a pure genre exercise is icing on an already delicious cake. Anchored by Lupita Nyong’o’s stunning dual performance as both captive (Adelaide) and tormentor (Red), the film is a downright disturbing descent into madness. The theme of duality and doppelgangers is hammered home in a terrific twist that, while not making tremendous logical sense, serves to deepen the thoughtful themes and provocative questions. Peele has got a lot on his mind, and I am along for every disturbing and twisted minute.

8. Little Women

Greta Gerwig’s incessantly charming adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s often-filmed novel is a work of tremendous beauty, kindness and grace. Suffice it to say, these are traits we could use a lot more of. As a terrific actor herself, Gerwig pulls pretty incredible performances from her cast (including a never-better Saoirse Ronan, Laura Dern, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen and Timotee Chalamet), and her script is anchored by a deep reverence for the source material along with a modern feminist streak that infuses the story with an energetic sense of defiance over a woman’s perceived inability to choose what will become of her life.

This film left a huge smile on my face, and it will likely be the gold standard for a whole new generation of fans. I hope they treasure it as much as I do.

7. Apollo 11

Seeing Todd Douglas Miller’s arresting documentary in IMAX was a truly transformative experience. I’ve always loved space stories and the wonder they inspire and seeing never-before-released footage of Neil Armstrong and company’s legendary expedition to the moon was mind-blowing. It’s hard to imagine how some of this footage was even captured, but Miller does a great job of letting the images speak for themselves. There are no talking heads, no narration—just the infectious energy of a moment in history that changed how we see ourselves and our place in the universe. Apollo 11 is a living testament to the endless ingenuity and indefatigable hope of humanity and seeing actual color video footage of that first step onto the moon ranks among my favorite cinematic moments of the year.

6. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

I will readily admit that I am a Tarantino fanatic—I love the energy he brings to his projects, his passion for cinema that radiates out of every frame. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood contains many of the director’s hat tricks—historical revisionism, a vintage soundtrack, witty and profane dialogue, sudden bursts of graphic violence—but it is also tinged with a sense of tragedy and loss of innocence that bear the mark of a more mature filmmaker. The brilliance of the film is in the way those two sides of Tarantino are balanced—the hubris and the humanism, the provocateur and the ponderer.

It certainly helps that Tarantino has eked out some career-best performances from the likes of Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Margot Robbie, performances that help this charming and affable tale of the end of Hollywood’s golden era come magically to life. To me, it’s ultimately the small moments that make this movie so special, from the plethora of hilarious cameos to the conversations that unfold between friends over a couple of drinks.

And one more thing: some critics were not fans of the movie’s final act, which re-frames the Manson murders as a night of cathartic violence, rather than unbearable heartbreak. I found it to be shocking, funny, and, ultimately, moving, my favorite ending to any movie released this year. I never saw where Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was going next, and I imagine I will enjoy plumbing its depths for years to come.

5. The Irishman

Martin Scorsese is nothing short of a cinematic legend. Over his long career, he has crafted some of the most technically daring, profoundly moving and downright entertaining films of his generation. I am happy to consider one of his breakout films, Taxi Driver, as my all-time favorite film. All this to say, when I heard of the director making another gangster epic in the vein of Casino or Goodfellas, I assumed I knew what I was getting. But, as he ages, Scorsese finds new ways to keep surprising us, and The Irishman has as much in common with the director’s more spiritual works (Kundun, The Last Temptation of Christ, Silence) as it does his gangster flicks.

Make no mistake, this is still a top-tier mob movie. Steve Zaillian’s meaty script is rife with rich time-hopping moments charting the rise of union boss Jimmy Hoffa (a brilliant Al Pacino) and his eventual mysterious disappearance. The film is not a biopic, but instead uses the historical relationship between Hoffa and hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) as a jumping-off point for a rumination on the personal cost of a life of crime. Much like Clint Eastwood re-contextualized the westerns that made his career in Unforgiven, Scorsese seems to be reflecting on the legacy of a life lived for the purpose of taking life from others. At the end of the road is isolation and regret, as we see in a haunting final image that is seared into my memory. Yes, The Irishman may be long, but it is an uncommonly rich and rewarding tale, even in a career filled with them.

4. Avengers: Endgame

One of the biggest pop-culture moments of 2019 also produced one of its most emotional and satisfying movies.  What Marvel has done with its cinematic universe is nothing short of legendary, and part of that success is owed to the film that caps it off. Endgame is a true stunner, an epic payoff that wraps up the main story thread of Marvel’s 20(+) film universe while also standing on its own as a great example of the way artistry can still be infused into big-budget blockbuster entertainment.

From its quiet and somber opening sequence, it’s clear that this is a different caliber of comic book superhero film. While the lengthy film (3 hours!) is full of generous humor and memorable character moments, the weight of what faces our heroes is conveyed with appropriate gravitas and even despair. But Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s script also satisfies on a pure story level, guiding us through delightful time-hopping adventures that leave plenty of space for most major characters to have their moment in the spotlight. And, in a year where “fan service” could be identified with laziness (I see you, Star Wars), here is a film that fleshed out that term to the best possible degree. It’s hard to imagine any fan of these characters or this decade-spanning series of movies being anything other than enthralled and moved by this power punch of a finale. Endgame stands out not only for what has come before it, but for being one of the best comic-based films of all time on its own merits.

3. A Hidden Life

I saw this film just a few days ago and was almost ready to write my list without it. As a gigantic fan of the films of Terrence Malick, I’m so glad I waited. No other film this year so stirred my emotions and my yearning to live a life of true calling and conviction. Easily Malick’s best film since his masterpiece The Tree of Life, the film is a somber meditation on the cost (and reward) of faithful Christian discipleship in a world consumed with turning a blind eye to evil. As Malick chronicles the true story of Austrian Franz (the underrated August Diehl) and his refusal to swear an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler during WWII, we see a deeply personal and moving example of how people of faith can engage in quiet, non-violent acts of disobedience in their struggle to render unto Caesar while still standing apart for the cause of Christ.

As a Christian, I’ve long championed the work of Terrence Malick as a prime example of how to integrate faith and art into modern cinema. The travesty of many “Christian” films is their desire to preach a message rather than use art to tell a story. The result is often artless and a poor imitation of the might and majesty the true love of Christ can engender in a human being. Malick doesn’t preach a message so much as bare his soul. His films are best experienced by letting them wash over you: everything from James Newton Howard’s gorgeous score to Jorg Widmer’s stunning cinematography is meant to be a sensory experience that lingers in the mind.

I’m willing to admit that this lengthy rumination on faith and courage could have been cut down a bit, but the film has a quiet momentum that builds to a powerful climax that had me weeping openly. It stands along the likes of Silence, Calvary, and First Reformed as a prime example that religious filmmaking can still look more like the Sistine Chapel than God’s Not Dead. And I say “Amen” to that.

2. Marriage Story

Writer/Director Noah Baumbach has always been a thoughtful examiner of the human condition, but I’ve felt his work to be more clinical than emotional. I’d say his films are often more interested in what makes people tick than in what brings passion to their lives. Throw all of those criticisms out the window with Marriage Story, because it is a warm, humanist miracle of a movie.

Baumbach’s chronicling of the disintegration of a marriage is devastating but also funny, trading in the idiosyncrasies of a shared life falling apart at the seams. We see moments of savagery and moments of great love. We see the ugliness of humanity alongside its indescribable beauty. We see the paradox that forgiving someone doesn’t mean you have to forget how they have hurt you.

Baumbach’s compassionate perspective is enhanced by truly mesmerizing lead performances from Adam Driver and Scarlett Johannsson as the couple in question, a struggling playwright and a breakout actress both suffering their own share of insecurities and egos. The truly stellar supporting cast includes Wallace Shawn, Laura Dern and Alan Alda in roles that will have you alternately wanting to pull your hair out and breathe a sigh of relief. Randy Newman’s sensitive score also heightens the emotions of the film considerably.

This is the kind of film that sinks its teeth in you from first frame to last. It’s not exactly a “fun” movie, but it has more moments of joy than the subject matter may suggest. Mostly, I am in awe of how Baumbach can treat each of his characters with such grace, patience and kindness. There is nary a false note or wasted moment in this truly great film.

1. Parasite

Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s savage tale of the haves and the have-nots has been the obsession of cinephiles ever since it won the prestigious Palme D’or at the Cannes Film Festival. Allow me to join in the praises. “Instant classic” is not a phrase that should be thrown around lightly, but it’s the first that comes to mind when I think about this completely unpredictable, endlessly imaginative and technically brilliant satire.

One of the things that has drawn me to Joon Ho’s work is his passion for social justice and caring for the environment (see Snowpiercer, Okja, The Host). Here, he takes those themes to new levels of profundity and absurdity, as he mixes dark comedy and truly powerful ruminations on the relationship between poverty and opportunity. The Kim family represents the working class, with side hustles and get-rich-quick schemes abounding. The Park family represents the upper class of society—oblivious to the world around them and clueless (perhaps even hostile) to the suffering of those around them.

We would be remiss to call any of these people role models, filled as their story is with deception and struggles for power, but they are immensely sympathetic. This is apparent not only in how they are written, but in the performances. Terrific Korean actors such as Kang-ho Song, Sun-Kyun Lee and Yeo-jeong Jo help us to understand the plight of their characters through both their subtleties and their extremes.

Rarely has a film been so thoroughly unpredictable as this one. For a film to truly surprise you moment-by-moment—with its heart, its humor, its twists and its technical brilliance—is a rare thing indeed. Bong Joon Ho has used all the pleasures that cinema has to offer—haunting music, unforgettable imagery, astounding performances and brilliant plotting—to craft a picture that fires on every possible cylinder. Don’t let the subtitles scare you. As Joon Ho himself said when he accepted the Golden Globe for best Foreign Language Film, “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitlesyou will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Indeed, no English-language film (or film in any language) released this year was more amazing than this one.

Since I had such a hard time narrowing my list down to 10, here are my picks for the best films 11—20 I saw in 2019. Knives Out

11. Knives Out

12. The Farewell

13. 1917

14. Ad Astra

15. Just Mercy

16. Toy Story 4

17. The Lighthouse

18. The Peanut Butter Falcon

19. American Factory

20. The Art of Self-Defense

I saw a lot of movies this year, but there were still some blind spots. Here are the major ones:

For Sama, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Pain and Glory, The Wild Pear Tree, Honeyland, Ash is Purest White, Birds of Passage, Atlantics, Booksmart, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Western Stars, Funan, Gloria Bell, Waves, High Life, The Nightingale, Brittany Runs a Marathon, Late Night, Honey Boy, Peterloo, Judy, Bombshell, Richard Jewell.