Yours truly doesn’t claim to be the ultimate arbiter of films, just a watcher and chronicler who has opinions. This list, then, is according to those opinions, with no claim to empirical scale.
1917 – This slightly dreamlike World War I drama is crafted so that it appears to take place in a handful of long tracking shots that swirl around the characters. We feel that we are there on the ground with a couple of young, determined English soldiers as they try to prevent an ambush, at the same time that we sometimes think we may be hallucinating. It’s a powerful tribute to those who endured the conflict. Directed by Sam Mendes and written by Mendes & Krysty Wilson-Cairns.
- ROCKETMAN – For sheer delight and exuberance, not to mention the great performances of Taran Egerton as Elton John and Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin, this musical biopic provided the most joy of the year. Directed by Dexter Fletcher and written by Lee Hall.
US – By turns eerie, terrifying, funny and always deeply weird, this horror movie about doppelgangers seeking their rightful place under the sun has a stupendous dual performance from Lupita Nyong’o as a wary modern woman and her wrathful shadow. Mythology that may not make sense of first viewing is actually explained and imaginative. Directed and written by Jordan Peele.
- CLEMENCY – A capital punishment drama from a novel point of view, that of the prison warden, played here immersively by Alfre Woodard. The film quietly and convincingly shows the fallout not only on the warden and the convict (the excellent Aldis Hodge), but on everyone in the vicinity. It’s powerful and too realistic for us to turn away. Directed and written by Chinonye Chukwu.
AVENGERS: ENDGAME – Considered on the most literal grounds of making a film – from sewing up multiple storylines and serving a horde of characters, to just getting all of the CGI completed and all the shots in focus, and then making it actually entertaining – this is arguably the biggest accomplishment of the year. That’s before factoring in its emotional impact, humor, and box office, and that it manages to avoid the meanwhile-back-at-the-ranch feel of its immediate predecessor, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR. Directed by Anthony Russo & Joe Russo and written by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, based on characters created by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby and Jim Starlin.
- FROZEN II – An animated sequel that may surpass the original in charm and heart, as well as visual intricacy. It also genuinely weaves its message about simultaneously maintaining individuality and family bonds into the story’s core, instead of just giving lip service to the concept. Directed by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, written by Jennifer Lee, story by Jennifer Lee & Chris Buck & Marc E. Smith & Kristen Anderson-Lopez & Robert Lopez.
THE CURRENT WAR: DIRECTOR’S CUT – The film has a slightly misleading title, as no earlier version was ever released. It’s a chronicle of the competition between 19th-century inventors Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), with input from Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), over whether alternating or direct electrical current was superior. THE CURRENT WAR is an intriguing lesson in science and history, but it’s also strong human drama. Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and written by Michael Mitnick.
- DARK WATERS – While in some ways this is a conventional “heroic attorney vs. big bad industry” movie, the specifics – and Mark Ruffalo’s lead performance – make it potent, disturbing and terrifying. Directed by Todd Haynes and written by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan, based on the article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” by Nathaniel Rich.
- BOOKSMART – A smart, endearing and funny comedy about best friends (played with verisimilitude by Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein) seeking to end their high school years with a blowout before college beckons. Directed by Olivia Wilde and written by
KNIVES OUT – Wonderfully clever, a murder mystery where there’s a murder, and a mystery, but they aren’t put together the way we’d expect. The production design by David Crank is exemplary. The ensemble cast is swell, and it all feels absolutely satisfying in a kind of new-fangled, old-fashioned way. Directed and written by Rian Johnson.
Honorable mention for adapted screenplay – Mike Flanagan, who also directed, somehow got the source material for Stephen King’s DOCTOR SLEEP to dovetail with both King’s novel THE SHINING and Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of THE SHINING, which are not greatly like one another. It’s an admirable feat.
Honorable mention for cinematography – THE WIND, a tale of 19th-century prairie horror, has some issues as a feature, but director of photography Lyn Moncrief’s work is stunning.
Honorable mention for fun low-budget horror – The five-part anthology NIGHTMARE CINEMA, directed by Alejandro Brugues, Joe Dante, Mick Garris, Ryuhei Kitamura, and David Slade and written by Brugues, Richard Christian Matheson, Garris, Sandra Becceril, Slade & Lawrence C. Connelly, and Halloween maze piece THE HAUNT, directed and written by Scott Buck & Bryan Woods, both with much more entertainment bang than financial buck.
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