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Tom Tangney’s 10 best films of 2019

(Image courtesy of A24)

1. Uncut Gems

The Brothers Safdie, Josh and Benny, have crafted a brilliant, frenzied, nerve-wracking film about a high-stakes Manhattan gem dealer and inveterate sports gambler who lives life on the frantic edge. By setting the story very specifically in 2012, the Safdies’ script can play off of real, historical sporting events as it charts the gambler’s ups and downs in seeming real-time. Such is the film’s overpowering immediacy that audiences leave the theatre frazzled but exhilarated. And Adam Sandler is at his manic best. (Yes, THAT Adam Sandler.)

2. Parasite

This Cannes Festival winner from South Korea’s Bong Joon Ho is a rich, multi-layered movie that starts off as a clever satire about the haves and the have-nots but gradually darkens and deepens into something of a sociological horror show. The parasite metaphor extends far beyond its Korean setting, giving it a kind of universal relevance/resonance.

3. Marriage Story

Although technically about a divorce, the title is more than appropriate since it’s really a deep dive into a particular marriage, from beginning to painful end — what made it click, what made it tick, and what got in the way. Writer-director Noah Baumbach deserves major credit for being able to base his screenplay on his own failed marriage (with actress Jennifer Jason Leigh) without stacking the deck against his former wife. The balance is superb, as are the performances of Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver.

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4. Little Women

No musty nineteenth-century family novel here. Writer-director Greta Gerwig has concocted an ingenious new approach to this oft-filmed story by breaking up the chronology of the narrative and blending our heroine Jo March with Little Women author Louisa May Alcott. The smart script is well-served by smart casting choices — Saoirse Ronan as Jo, Florence Pugh as Amy, and Timothee Chalamet as Laurie.

5. Joker

One of our greatest actors, Joaquin Phoenix, plays one of our greatest comic book villains in this much-maligned film. Phoenix is mesmerizing as Arthur Fleck, a put-upon clown who can’t catch a break until he transmogrifies into the Joker. It’s an outsize performance in an over-the-top movie that’s both too much and just right. Joker’s strut-dancing on a New York stairway is a visual for the ages.

6. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Quentin Tarantino’s valentine to the Hollywood of his youth is appropriately complicated, with a crossover collision between TV cowboys, jet-setting celebrities, and hippie drop-outs. Only a mad hatter of a screenwriter like Tarantino would dream of tying all the cultural strains together with Charles Manson, and only a visionary director like Tarantino could pull it off with a fairy-tale ending of violent proportions.

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7. Us

Perhaps because of the uber-success of his breakout film “Get Out”, Jordan Peele has not been getting the attention he deserves for his follow-up film. “Us” in many ways is an even more ambitious take on 21st century America, as it dares to implicate all of us in our nation’s inequities. A film with clear parallels to another great 2019 film, “Parasite”.

8. The Irishman

A quiet epic. Master director Martin Scorsese’s latest film feels like a career-capper for his impressive string of mob movies. Like his titular subject, Scorsese here keeps his ego in check to achieve his aims. Frank Sheeran wasn’t flashy, and, intentionally, neither is Scorsese’s filmmaking. Instead of the splash of “Goodfellas,” “The Irishman” delivers a rumination on a life lived long if not exactly well.

9. The Lighthouse

The visually most striking film of the year. Director Robert Eggers uses evocative black-and-white cinematography to accentuate the mythic feel of this clash of two men consigned to a lighthouse on an island in the middle of nowhere. Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson handle the heightened language of the screenplay with aplomb.

10. Toy Story 4

An absolutely unnecessary sequel to the greatest animated trilogy of films ever, and yet this Pixar gem proves to be every bit their equal. This time out, the cowboy string puppet Woody faces the existential question of all toys and by extension all of us: What value do we have when we’re no longer wanted or needed? Like all the “Toy Story” movies, “Toy Story 4” is more about adults than it is kids.

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