There comes a time in every film critic’s life when he must relinquish childish notions about the impossibility of quantifying art and submit to the algorithms. This we know as “year-end list” season. In my brain I know that ranking movies is super lame, and people can experience the same films under different circumstances producing different reactions and that’s okay, but in my heart I know that my opinions are objectively the correct ones and that I must rage, rage against the other clowns on the internet.
This is my year-end best-of list. There are many like it but this one is mine. Without my year-end best-of list, I am nothing. Without me, my year-end best-of list is nothing.
10. (tie) Mission Impossible: Fallout, Paddington 2, Annihilation
It’s number 10 and I’m already cheating. You didn’t think I’d really be able to limit this list to just 10, did you? Rules are for science writers, baby. In any case, I found these films surprising and delightful enough to warrant mention.
I’ve never wholeheartedly loved a Mission Impossible movie before Fallout, but this one put the whole franchise over the top, mainly by dispensing with the pretense that the plot is especially important or the story about anything but over-the-top spectacle in Mission Impossible movies. To know thyself is truly a gift. In that sense Fallout is the Furious 7 of this franchise. Fallout gave us Tom Cruise piloting all manner of conveyance (cars! trucks! boats! helicopters!) while platonically seducing women all across the globe (they love his pumpin’ lil’ legs!) and of course, running so hard it looked like his limbs might fly off. Tom Cruise is so committed you can allow yourself to forget that his religion has been accused of keeping slaves. That’s quite a feat.
Oh, and there was Henry Cavill in a sweet mustache.
Is it just me or are spy movies in which Henry Cavill appears the best spy movies? Every time I see him in a movie I think how handsome he is and try to copy his facial hair and quickly realize I can’t pull it off. Anyway, the helicopter sequence at the end of Fallout is one of the best blockbuster action sequences ever filmed.
Paddington 2 is the movie Mary Poppins Returns wanted to be. I never would’ve expected it from a creepy-eyed CGI bear, but Paul King and Simon Farnaby gave us Paddington as an avatar of modern Britishness — where a kind of reserved politeness and fusty rectitude are the ultimate ideals. Call that revisionist or modernized, it’s a nice thought in any case. Hugh Grant’s role as a famous thespian disgraced into doing dog food commercials is his best ever (and deserves serious awards consideration) and that’s in a movie that also includes Brendan Gleason, Hugh Bonneville, and Sally Hawkins. It would’ve been hard to have a more pleasant time in a movie this year.
If Paddington 2 and Fallout were the best of the broad multiplex offerings, Annihilation was a psychological sci-fi horror film so ineffable and metaphysical that it’s hard to believe it even got made. Alex Garland took a book that seemed impossible to film and turned it into a movie that’s almost impossible to describe. Also, there was a skull bear made of screams. Now that’s how you do introspection.
9. Eighth Grade
A lot of performances get called “brave” every year and usually they’re just the kind of roles you expect from famous actresses who dress down for easy accolades. Destroyer had a pretty good script and direction, but Nicole Kidman was essentially a holocaust propaganda cartoon caricature of a non-beautiful person. “This is what you gross slobs look like, isn’t it? Did I get the liver spots right?” You know that speech in Kill Bill 2 where Bill is talking about how Superman’s Clark Kent outfit is basically how Superman views all humans? There’s an awards movie version of that.
I digress, but in any case, Elsie Fisher, channeling her most awkward incarnation and preserving it forever in Eighth Grade, actually was brave. It was also an amazing work for a first time director. Eighth Grade had all the things you’d expect in a movie about an eighth-grader — painful awkwardness, social faux pas, embarrassing parents, tragic crushes — but Bo Burnham made music with them. In his hands, those adolescent touchstones felt not banal or well worn but iconic, anthemic. Also important, Burnham gave his “arthouse” movie an edge, unafraid to occasionally go scat when the situation warranted it (these are eighth graders after all). In 2019, Lord grant us more movies that are smart without being overly mannered. “Taste” means pushing the boundaries a little bit.
Roma is showing up on everyone’s best-of list, and for good reason: every scene feels like the filmmaking equivalent of nailing a quadruple axel (yeah I do figure skating metaphors now, deal with it). Almost every scene is a long-take tracking shot as carefully choreographed as the D-Day landing, that the actors nonetheless have to perform while maintaining the facade of social realism (even Busby Berkeley didn’t have that requirement).
I honestly didn’t want to add to Roma‘s critical acclaim, simply because it seems so arthouse conventional on the surface — it’s in black and white, it’s opening just in time for maximum awards consideration, and most of the promo images involve sad but proud people looking life-affirmingly at each other on a beach somewhere. I wanted to hate it, truly, and its “climactic” beach scene is the weakest part. But it just couldn’t be denied. The entire subplot with Cleo’s naked karate boyfriend culminating in a street riot scene is unforgettable. See it, I promise.
7. Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot
I’m baffled as to why Gus Van Sant’s biopic of vulgar, disabled cartoonist John Callahan played by Joaquin Phoenix isn’t getting more love this awards/year-end list season. Is it because it hit limited release at the height of summer blockbuster season? Was it too expected?
Whatever the case, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot is a superior film to that other Joaquin Phoenix movie that’s on everyone’s awards list (You Were Never Really Here), which, when you strip away the cool visuals, has a plot that wouldn’t fly on Law & Order SVU (which is a credit to Lynne Ramsay’s directing, but the fact remains that it’s essentially a collection of art tricks). Meanwhile, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot is Van Sant’s best in a long time, with huge performances by Phoenix, a big stretch for Jonah Hill (as flamboyant 12-step hero Donnie Green) that totally pays off, and solid supporting work from Jack Black and the lesser-known actors who populate Callahan’s alcoholics anonymous classes. I’m shocked Jonah Hill isn’t in the awards conversation for this one this year.
Like Spike Lee, Gus Van Sant seems to be at his best when he’s doing straightforward period pieces, and practically everything he does works in this one.