'Parasite,' 'Little Women' and 'Marriage Story' lead list of 2019's best films

  • The Korean thriller "Parasite" tops Dann Gire's list of 2019's best films.

    The Korean thriller "Parasite" tops Dann Gire's list of 2019's best films. Courtesy of Neon

 
 
Updated 1/2/2020 10:37 AM

The best motion pictures of 2019 don't appear to have much in common, except three of them involve sharp blades and a few others involve close shaves.

These 10 movies made the cut, and for fun, I tossed in an honorable mention for the film that haunted me the most after I left the theater.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

1. "Parasite"

So we think we're watching an intriguing tale about a clever lower-class family scamming a clueless upper-class family for money. Then, infamous South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho takes a sharp (very sharp) left turn into one of the most bizarre, caustic, social satires ever made while mostly utilizing only two sets. Joon-ho's environmental warning "The Host" conjured up classic 1950s creature features. His class war parable "Snowpiercer" dressed a survival epic in science fiction. Now, "Parasite" presents a cautionary tale about what happens when the Haves ignore the Have-Nots for just a little too long.

Writer/director Greta Gerwig re-teamed with her "Lady Bird" star Saoirse Ronan, top right, for another adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women."
Writer/director Greta Gerwig re-teamed with her "Lady Bird" star Saoirse Ronan, top right, for another adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women." - Courtesy of Columbia Pictures
2. "Little Women"

Greta Gerwig wrote and directed one of my Top 10 films of 2017, "Lady Bird," starring Saoirse Ronan, and they re-team for this fresh, inspired take on Louisa May Alcott's literary saga of the March sisters: Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy. The dialogue sparkles, the sisters sync up sincerely (with Ronan, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen and a stellar Florence Pugh). Former Mumblecore queen Gerwig invests this handsome adaptation with cinematic invention, new relevance and Alexandre Desplat's playful score.

Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson play a director and actress who close the curtain on their marriage in "Marriage Story."
Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson play a director and actress who close the curtain on their marriage in "Marriage Story." - Courtesy of Netflix
3. "Marriage Story"

If you're not using a hankie exactly six minutes before the end of this domestic drama, you must be Simon and Garfunkel's rock that feels no pain and the island that never cries. This Netflix drama is a highly engaging examination of what appears to have been a perfect marriage unraveling at its emotional seams. Adam Driver plays the hotshot New York director husband. Scarlett Johansson plays his actress wife in the 21st century's "Kramer Vs. Kramer" as directed by the grand poet of relationship dramas, Noah Baumbach.

Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) fights for her family in Jordan Peele's horror parable "Us."
Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) fights for her family in Jordan Peele's horror parable "Us." - Courtesy of Universal
4. "Us"

Jordan Peele follows up his blistering, "Twilight Zone"-on-crack racial allegory/black comedy "Get Out" with a horrific home-invasion tale involving red jumpsuited dopplegangers intent on killing an African-American couple (Lupita Nyong'o and Winston Duke) and their children with oversized scissors. Why forms the movie's bizarre, global Armageddon fueled by our xenophobic fear of outsiders. A chiller thriller with an ending that will change how you view clips of the 1986 "Hands Across America" benefit, if you ever see any again.

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Sheriff Woody (Tom Hanks) makes a new friend in Forky during "Toy Story 4."
Sheriff Woody (Tom Hanks) makes a new friend in Forky during "Toy Story 4." - Courtesy of Disney/Pixar
5. "Toy Story 4"

"Toy Story 3" ended on a perfect note of finality with college-bound Andy giving Sheriff Woody and the other toys to their new human, Bonnie. So, Pixar's filmmakers created an even better, more poignant bookend for the series that talks about second chances, and the inevitability of goodbyes. Strange, fascinating characters populate this near-photo-realistic fantasy constructed of superbly rendered, nuanced shadows, deep textures and insanely choreographed action sequences with dizzying, 360-degree camera swirls. And there's Forky, a toy who thinks of himself as worthless trash, a potent reminder of our responsibility to notice, acknowledge and help others out of life's dark corners.

A rich mystery writer (Christopher Plummer), center. dies under suspicious circumstances in "Knives Out."
A rich mystery writer (Christopher Plummer), center. dies under suspicious circumstances in "Knives Out." - Courtesy of Lionsgate
6. "Knives Out"

After directing the fairly satisfying "Star Wars" entry "The Last Jedi," Rian Johnson helmed this insanely complex, yet surprisingly easy-to-follow boardroom mystery that harks back to star-driven 1970s whodunits "Murder on the Orient Express" and "Death on the Nile" laced with a bit of Neil Simon's comic "Murder By Death." Daniel Craig projects great fun playing a Southern-fried detective with Chris Evans, Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson and Ana de Armas as the suspects in Christopher Plummer's death.

Fading action movie star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) leaps into action one more time in "Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood."
Fading action movie star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) leaps into action one more time in "Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood." - Courtesy of Sony Pictures
7. "Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood"

This violent black comedy would have placed higher on my list had writer/director Quentin Tarantino not fallen so much in love with his recreation of 1960s Hollywood that he couldn't bear to cut it down to a tight, fighting weight. Consider this fact-inspired buddy movie (about Leonardo DiCaprio's action film star and his stunt double, played by Brad Pitt) "Helter Skelter" with a lemon twist.

Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), left, has a heart-to-heart chat with Frank Sheeran in "The Irishman."
Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), left, has a heart-to-heart chat with Frank Sheeran in "The Irishman." - Courtesy of Netflix
8. "The Irishman"

The digital de-aging of stars Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino works well on their faces. Not so well on the shapes and movements of their middle-aged bodies. Martin Scorsese directs another superb period mob drama based on hit man Frank Sheeran (De Niro), loyal member of the Bufalino crime family and best friend to ill-fated Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). Frank's astute daughter Peggy (Lucy Gallina, then Anna Paquin) becomes our overt if not blunt surrogate conscience.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Two British soldiers must deliver a crucial message to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) in "1917."
Two British soldiers must deliver a crucial message to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) in "1917." - Courtesy of Universal Pictures
9. "1917"

Sure, you could say that constructing this two-hour World War I drama so that it appears to be one continuous real-time shot is a gimmick. But what a doozy of a gimmick, one that kerplops us into an immersive, you-are-there experience unparalleled in modern cinema. Sam Mendes directs and Roger Deakins shoots this study of two young lance corporals, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), dispatched to deliver a letter across enemy lines to Col. Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) to stop British soldiers from marching into a trap. A true work of cinema with nods to "Apolcalypse Now" and "The Killing Fields."

In "The Farewell," a young woman named Billi (Awkwafina) doesn't tell her beloved grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen) she has cancer.
In "The Farewell," a young woman named Billi (Awkwafina) doesn't tell her beloved grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen) she has cancer. - Courtesy of A24 films
10. "The Farewell"

Lulu Wang's family comedy feels original and authentic, mainly because most of it really happened when her grandmother Nai Nai was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and her family decided she would be better off not knowing it. Wang's family really did stage a fake wedding to allow everyone a chance to say goodbye to her without revealing the truth. This is a film treasure, especially with luminous actress Awkwafina as Wang's stand-in, Billi, who says all the things that Wang didn't get to say in real life.

Honorable Mention: "Midsommar" -- I couldn't get Ari Aster's reality-twisting Stockholm syndrome horror tale out of my scorched brain for a week. The tale follows Dani (the stellar Florence Pugh) and her friends on a trip to a seemingly peaceful, remote Swedish commune. Faster than you can shout "The Wicker Man on Acid!" we get botched ritual suicides, pagan sex practices, disemboweled bears, burned-alive sacrifices and a fixation with multiples of the number nine. Aster may not be Kubrick, but he's certainly shining with this study of civilized veneer. A special director's cut of "Midsommar" played in theaters for one week only.

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