I am a movie crier. The ending of “Jojo Rabbit” had me alternating between hiccuping sobs and giggles with a similarly afflicted friend over just how much we were crying. I sniffled my way through the entirety of two viewings of “Little Women,” amassing a heap of movie theater napkins into an appropriated cupholder that had spilled over by the end. I couldn’t catch my breath at the end of “Queen & Slim,” and I felt the tears coming again as I thought about what I’d just seen as walked down the block away from the theater.
But it isn’t only on-screen sadness — or even happiness — that gets the waterworks going for me. Multiple movies in 2019 made me cry, both out of the sheer gratitude of their existence and of getting to watch them, often on a big screen. Having to narrow down 250 films from this year to just the top 10 is both a blessing and a curse, but what an absolute joy it is to have this struggle.
10. “Knives Out”
If Rian Johnson’s follow-up to “The Last Jedi” were only a perfectly cast, modern version of a classic whodunit, “Knives Out” would still have been the most purely entertaining film of the year. The on-screen talent (including Chris Evans, Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Lakeith Stanfield, Toni Collette, Christopher Plummer, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, and Don Johnson) clearly had a blast making it, and the audience can’t help but feel the same. But, as Johnson’s “Star Wars” outing and his entire filmography have demonstrated, he’s not content to let genre conventions lie. “Knives Out” also addresses class inequality, racism, and immigration, proving that just because a film is an exhilarating delight, doesn’t mean it needs to be agnostic on the issues that really matter.
9. “High Flying Bird”
Shot via iPhone camera, Steven Soderbergh’s first of two 2019 films offers a window into a world that we don’t usually see on screen: the life of a sports agent in New York City, played by the always welcome Andre Holland. “High Flying Bird” is often serious in how it deals with issues more substantial than just sports, particularly the commodification of black athletes’ bodies. But even beyond “Moonlight” scribe Tarell Alvin McCraney’s sharp, witty script, there’s a sense of joy here. The fun Soderbergh had making the film radiates off it, with this masterful movie that reminds the audience why we’re lucky one of the greatest living directors is still in the business.
8. “Apollo 11”
Director Todd Douglas Miller‘s documentary could feel like the type of dry IMAX film you watch on a school field trip at a museum — and hopefully, it will have a second life with that kind of distribution — but this is a film that should leave even rowdy school groups rapt. Miller relies almost entirely on archival footage and audio to share a previously unseen look at that momentous endeavor. And it is absolutely jaw-dropping. There’s a wonder in watching the NASA mission, as well as the numerous people required to execute it back on earth and the way people around the globe united to witness it. “Apollo 11” is a rousing, essential viewing experience that reminds us of exactly what humanity is capable of when we work together toward a single, world-changing goal
“Hereditary” messed me up. Ari Aster’s first film was so effective and disturbing that I never want to see it again, but his sophomore movie is another thing entirely. Darkness and brutal violence still permeate “Midsommar,” with gruesome flashes arriving to randomly terrorize those who usually know when to close their eyes. However, there’s a lightness to it that wasn’t present in its predecessor, and not just literally, thanks to its setting during a sun-drenched pagan festival in Sweden attended by a group of unwitting Americans. In just two films, Aster has proven himself a master of psychological trauma and grief, but “Midsommar” is also surprisingly funny, particularly in its winks at academia and bad boyfriends alike. But above all, hail queen Florence Pugh, who has had a banner year overall, but is particularly shattering here.
6. “Pain and Glory”
Pedro Almodovar’s latest is a stunner, representing some of the Spanish director’s best work this century, if not in his entire career. The same could be said for his star, Antonio Banderas, all impeccable grace and precision, who gives his most impressive performance to date playing an aging filmmaker whose health is failing. Nostalgia weaves through “Pain and Glory,” as fictional director Salvador Mallo looks back on his life, which certainly bears some resemblance to the real director’s own. Almodovar fans will love seeing the auteur’s signature gorgeous visuals, but this drama feels more intimate and personal, allowing the audience to creep closer to Almodovar himself. This is a movie brimming with empathy and tenderness, as Mallo forgives both those in his past as well as himself.
5. “The Farewell”
Lulu Wang’s second feature is a study in the power of both specificity and universality in film. The story of “The Farewell” is inspired by the director’s own life —her actual grandmother’s fatal cancer diagnosis and her Chinese family’s choice to keep the knowledge from their matriarch — and it features details about that experience as well as about life as an immigrant that feel authentic in each moment. But while the audience may not have had a first-hand cultural experience similar to Wang’s own, the emotions here, particularly grief and nostalgia within familial relationships, are ones viewers are intimately familiar with. What’s just as impressive as the film’s psychological maturity is its visuals; Wang’s talent and care for the story and these people are clear in each frame of the film.
4. “Ad Astra”
Is this where I admit the cinematic sin that I’m not the biggest fan of James Gray? His past films have left me cold, which is why “Ad Astra”’s emotional gravity was such a pleasant surprise. Partial credit is due to Gray and Ethan Gross’s inventive sci-fi screenplay, which gives equal attention to the outer space adventure of a son’s voyage to find his father as it does to his inner journey to explore both himself and their relationship. But as that son, Brad Pitt also deserves praise, as much or more as he’s gotten this year for the far more successful “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Where that role for Quentin Tarantino was big and fun while still being nuanced, this is a quiet one, full of subtleties that help express his character’s struggles in a future still governed by the strictures of toxic masculinity. “Ad Astra” features the rare voiceover narration that works, but even without it, Pitt’s performance would make everything clear.
3. “Little Women”
Drinking a mug of tea under a snuggly blanket in front of a crackling fire couldn’t match the warmth and coziness of Greta Gerwig’s lovely sophomore film. “Little Women” is full of generosity, with Gerwig’s nonlinear script finally ensuring that Florence Pugh’s Amy (often an object of derision in other adaptations) isn’t hated by the audience and is instead just as revered as Saoirse Ronan’s Jo. Part of that is due to Pugh’s delightful performance as the youngest March sister, but it’s also Gerwig’s approach, which restructures Louisa May Alcott’s story, introducing us to Amy when she’s an aspiring artist who understands the practicalities of romance in the 19th century, rather than just a simpering brat. “Little Women” is a nearly perfect film, at once entirely kind but smart, treating the audience with as much generosity and intelligence as its characters.
Like the organism imagined when reading its title, “Parasite” is a slippery beast. Once you think you’ve got a grasp on what it’s doing, it morphs into a new and somehow even more marvelous, yet malicious creature. Bong Joon-ho’s latest — and greatest — begins as a family comedy about the unemployed but inventive Kims, headed by Song Kang-ho‘s rumpled patriarch, before shifting into a gleeful heist picture as they con their way into the wealthy Park household. But “Parasite” keeps evolving over its unsettling 132 minutes, with each surprising transformation — from comedy to satire to all-out horror — and every perfectly framed composition remaining true to Bong’s singular vision. His sharp satirical barbs about class cut deep, but his affection for the Kims — and their love for each other — make this as moving as it is incisive and entertaining.
1. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”
Céline Sciamma’s heart-stoppingly gorgeous film ticks every box for this costume-drama-loving romantic francophile, but it is still far more than the sum of its parts. Set in the late 18th century on an isolated French island, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” perfectly evokes the heady longing of a love story between two women — an artist (Noémie Merlant) and her reluctant subject (Adèle Haenel) — capturing their passion so well that even the most level-headed in the audience will swoon and probably fall for whoever happens to be sitting next to them (choose those seats carefully). It’s hard to imagine a more romantic film, with each scene building to the best finale of any movie this year, leaving you breathless when the credits appear. With cinematography by Claire Mathon, this is also the year’s most beautiful film, with each frame deserving of placement on a wall at a museum.
Runners-up: “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” “Honey Boy,” “Wild Rose,” “Us,” “Varda by Agnès,” “American Factory,” “Jojo Rabbit,” “Marriage Story,” “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” “Ford v. Ferrari,” “1917,” “Woman at War,” “Booksmart,” “Monos,” “Queen & Slim,” “Birds of Passage,” “Her Smell,” “The Beach Bum,” “Little Woods,” “Donnybrook,” “Shadow,” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” “Transit,” “Under the Silver Lake,” “The Nightingale,” “Hustlers,” “The Lighthouse,” “Les Miserables,” “Fighting with My Family,” and “In Fabric.”