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Ty Burr’s best movies of 2019

Adèle Haenel (left) and Noémie Merlant in a scene from "Portrait of a Lady on Fire."Neon via AP

I’ll keep this brief: It was a good year for the movies and maybe a better year for moviegoers. Two titanic franchises came to an end (for now), one with a bang (“Avengers: Endgame”) and one with — well, we’ll see (“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”). If Disney threatened to colonize multiplexes with pointless digital remakes of its animated classics (“Aladdin,” “The Lion King,” “Dumbo”), there were enough non-sequel/non-franchise projects in the higher echelons of the box office to prompt hope: “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood,” “Us,” “Ford v Ferrari.” (Sorry, “Joker” doesn’t count.)

And even as the streaming revolution increasingly alters mass habits of viewing, without Netflix two of the movies in my Top Ten might not have been made. (And without Amazon, we wouldn’t have the single scene that most wrecked me emotionally this year, on TV or in the movies: Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s title character waving farewell to us, the audience in her head, at the end of “Fleabag.”)


The dominance of on-demand has sparked a platform war (Apple TV Plus, Disney+, HBO Max, and so on and so forth) that will play out in hard to predict ways in the coming years. For now the demand for content can only benefit creators and audiences, if the latter can figure out how to watch all this stuff.

Those creators include plenty of people who couldn’t get in the door before, and it’s no coincidence that there are so many women directors on my list this year — not just among the Top Ten but in the following five I slotted at number 11 and among the 18 runners-up. In large part, it was a good year for the movies because so many new kinds of stories, from so many kinds of storytellers, can now be told. That promises to make 2020 an even better year for the movies.


1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire A stately, austere, yet ravishingly sensual 18th-century period piece about a lady painter (Noémie Merlant), the object of her latest commission (Adèle Haenel) — a young woman unhappily engaged to a man she has never met — and a relationship that begins in subterfuge and slowly flowers into a profound and poignant intimacy. A breakthrough for the French filmmaker Céline Sciamma (“Girlhood”), it’s a film about looking — how men and artists look at women and subjects, and how women and subjects can turn that around and look right back, leveling the playing field with a thrill that threatens to turn physical and then makes good on the threat. Exquisitely shot and scored, “Portrait” is a slow burner that masterfully fuses ideas and execution, sense and sensibility, body and mind. You may never be able to listen to Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” again without bursting into tears. (It comes to Boston in February.)

Scarlett Johansson, Azhy Robertson, and Adam Driver in "Marriage Story." Wilson Webb/Associated Press

2. Marriage Story Noah Baumbach has been mining his narrow strip of upper-middle-class boho comedy-drama since “The Squid and the Whale” (2005), but this smart, sympathetic look at a couple on the rocks betokens a new maturity about the messes we humans make of life. The supporting cast is delightfully deep, but it’s Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as sorrowfully battling spouses who keep this “Story” grounded in truthful, hard-won honesty. (That said, some of us might welcome an answer film from Baumbach’s ex, Jennifer Jason Leigh.)


Cho Yeo Jeong in "Parasite." NEON/CJ Entertainment

3. Parasite Not since the glory days of Hitchcock has a filmmaker set this many fiendish traps for his characters and his audiences. The latest dark farce from the South Korean master Bong Joon-ho (“Snowpiercer”) is a class-war story about a scrappy poor family that subtly invades the antiseptic mansion of a wealthy clan — and then the games begin and the bottom falls out of the floor. Bong choreographs the escalating mayhem with devilish wit and an undercurrent of rage; for all the laughs and scares, “Parasite” is a social tragedy whose darts land awfully close to home.

Daniel Craig in "Knives Out."

4. Knives Out A blast of old-school, hand-made mystery-movie craftsmanship — a pleasure from start to finish. Who killed Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer)? That’s what master detective Benoit Blanc (an outrageous Daniel Craig) hopes to learn from the dead man’s relatives, a shifty bunch played by a grand gang of scene-stealers. Everything clicks here: the performances, the dialogue, the New England-rococo production design. Writer-director Rian Johnson plays fair by the mystery and by us; he’d have made a great director for Hollywood’s Golden Age but thankfully we’ve got him instead.

Hatidze Muratova in "Honeyland."Ljubo Stefanov

5. Honeyland Some documentaries manage both to transport viewers and root them to the earth. Three years in the making, Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s film centers on Hatidze Muratova, a force of nature who raises bees in the Macedonian countryside, searching out colonies in the sides of cliffs. What happens when a fractious family moves next door and tries to horn in on the honey-selling business? The film works as a site-specific morality play and a larger lesson about how best to use nature’s bounty, and you won’t forget Muratova any time soon.


From left: Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan, and Emma Watson in "Little Women."Wilson Webb/Sony Pictures Entertainment

6. Little Women Is it even possible to make a bad version of the beloved Louisa May Alcott novel? Maybe not, but that does nothing to undercut Greta Gerwig’s achievement. While rearranging some of the chronological furniture, the director doesn’t modernize the book so much as gently stiffen its spine and celebrate its sisterhood in every sense. Saoirse Ronan is a fine Jo, but this may be the first “Little Women” to be nearly stolen by its Amy, who Florence Pugh transforms from a spoiled brat to an exuberant pain growing into womanhood. (Opens Christmas Day.)

Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro in "The Irishman." Niko Tavernise/Associated Press

7. The Irishman I still say this is a movie ill-served by its exhibitor, Netflix, since most people will opt to see Martin Scorsese’s 3½-hour meditation on crime, conscience, and friendship on the home screen, where a million little distractions will wreck its unflashy spell. For “Goodfellas” fans looking for more of the same, sorry — this is a movie made by a man in the autumn of his years, made with men who are right there beside him, and it is ultimately about who you are when you stand before your God and look back at the way you’ve come.

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in "Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood."Andrew Cooper/Associated Press

8. Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood Quentin Tarantino wants to live in a movie, and he knows we wish we could live in one, too. He even knows everyone in Hollywood felt the same way until the Manson murders broke the town’s soul in 1969. So he re-creates that town in wonderfully granular detail, with two charismatic has-beens and a rising starlet at its center, and he retells the story the way it should have gone — maybe a little overboard on the violence, but it’s Tarantino and they had it coming. This may be the best thing Brad Pitt’s ever done.


Antonio Banderas in "Pain and Glory."Manolo Pavón/Associated Press

9. Pain and Glory Speaking of autumnal masterpieces, here’s Spain’s Pedro Almodovar confronting the indignity and black comedy of getting old and creatively stalled. Old friend Antonio Banderas, aging like a lion, plays a filmmaker in crisis, caught between his memories of childhood (Penelope Cruz plays his mother in flashback) and the pipe-dreams of getting high. Almodovar’s usual randy high spirits are replaced here with a gentle, persistent humor and a sense of loss that’s somehow celebratory. A wise, moving, deeply humane film.

Adam Sandler in "Uncut Gems." A24

10. Uncut Gems The Safdie brothers, Benny and Josh, came out of BU and come of age with this hellacious breakthrough, reminiscent of early Scorsese in its Noo Yawk grit and fascination with impulse-driven men making the worst choices they possibly can. Whatever you may think of Adam Sandler, he is sensational as Howard Ratner, a diamond-district hustler with a family, a mistress, a gambling addiction, and a precious rock that keeps tumbling maddeningly beyond his reach. A heart attack of a movie, and if that doesn’t sound like much fun, the Safdies don’t care. (Opens Christmas Day.)

Five movies that came in at No. 11:

Mary Kay Place in "Diane."Courtesy of IFC Films

Atlantics This first film from actress-turned-director Mati Diop is an eerie slice of magic realism.

Diane Mary Kay Place is wonderful in Kent Jones’s small-town study of a woman and her burdens.

Ford v Ferrari A rousing, expertly made vroom-vroom drama, with great performances. Hint: Ford’s not the hero.

Her Smell Alex Ross Perry’s drama about a rock star overcoming her demons features an astounding Elisabeth Moss.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco Another first-time wonder, from director Joe Talbot and co-writer and star Jimmie Fails.

Jimmie Fails (left) and Jonathan Majors in "The Last Black Man in San Francisco."Courtesy of A24


“1917” (opens Jan. 10), “Amazing Grace,” “Ash Is Purest White,” “Booksmart,” “Dolemite Is My Name,” “The Farewell,” “Hail Satan?,” “A Hidden Life,” “High-Flying Bird,” “Hustlers,” “Little Woods,” “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” “Maiden,” “Midsommar,” “The Souvenir,” “Toy Story 4,” “The Wild Pear Tree,” “Waves”