Eastwood’s conceptions of heroism and villainy have always been, if not endlessly complex, at least never simplistic.
As the year comes to a close, and you’re wondering what to see before you make your top ten list or pick up the latest Twitter fight about awards season, we are here to guide the way. First, check out Chaz Ebert’s guide to her personal picks for films to see before the end of the year, and then peruse the 36 films from the year that our staff critic gave the highest possible rating—4 stars.
“Kiarostami was, finally, more than a great filmmaker; he was an artistic titan whose work transcends both cinema and the culture of Iran. How fitting that this lovely final film is one that could be enjoyed by fourth-graders as easily as the most knowledgeable of Kiarostami’s admirers.” (Godfrey Cheshire)
“Whether you’re religious or not, you owe it to yourself to see this movie if the chance arises. You’ll see how much love and feeling went into the construction of the resulting album. Additionally, “Amazing Grace” is profoundly moving and extraordinarily soothing. Nowadays we could use a good salve. To paraphrase another gospel standard, if we ever needed this film before, we sure do need it now.” (Odie Henderson)
“What’s most bewitching throughout “Scruggs” is its sense of detail. Its meshing of formal discipline and screwed-down content sometimes give it the sense of a work that has been carefully and elaborately embroidered rather than photographed.” (Glenn Kenny)
“For all its action sequences (they’re refreshingly uncluttered, focusing on smaller battles than usual) and talk of metals that exist only in the mind of Stan Lee, “Black Panther” is still Marvel’s most mature offering to date. It’s also its most political, a film completely unafraid to alienate certain factions of the Marvel base.” (Odie Henderson)
“This is not only one of the year’s best films but one of Lee’s best as well. Juggling the somber and the hilarious, the sacred and the profane, the tragedy and the triumph, the director is firing on all cylinders here. "BlacKkKlansman" is a true conversation starter, and probably a conversation ender as well.” (Odie Henderson)
“This movie swings between high drama and low comedy, and between terrifying danger and sweet moments of near-romance. Then it climaxes with an intense, brilliant monologue that is an almost otherworldly dare, a piece of performance art that some viewers are bound to question. Like all great movies, “Blindspotting” is a force to be reckoned with and wrestled with. No matter where you land in your assessment, your expectations are guaranteed to be shattered.” (Odie Henderson)
“This is my favorite film of the year by far—and when I say "film," singular, I'm referring to both halves of "A Bread Factory," because they flow together in the mind. As of this writing, I've seen both parts three times. With each viewing, I notice new things and am more moved by the characters, who are unique and eccentric in the way that real people are, but written and acted with the economy and directness that distinguishes characters in well-constructed plays or short stories—ones where the storytellers know what they want to say and how best to say it.” (Matt Zoller Seitz)
“The three main characters circle warily, looking at each other with desire, mistrust, need, never certain of the accuracy of their perceptions. Lee's explorations require depth and space. It's a great film, engrossing, suspenseful, and strange.” (Sheila O’Malley)
"An aching film on such exquisite pains of impossible love, Paweł Pawlikowski’s “Cold War” concurrently swells your heart and breaks it, just like the sore memory of a lover that drifted away from your life, or an intensely craved kiss that never was. It’s a tale with the makings of legendary sagas, following the union and break-up (and union and break-up again and again) of Wiktor and Zula, a classically gorgeous couple from the opposite sides of the tracks." (Tomris Laffly)
“The image of Elvis shifts, depending on the entry point. What is so refreshing—damn near redeeming—about HBO's two-part documentary "Elvis Presley: The Searcher," premiering on HBO on April 14, is that the entry point is Presley's art.” (Sheila O’Malley)
“Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed,” in which Ethan Hawke brilliantly plays an alcoholic Protestant minister undergoing a profound spiritual and psychological crisis, is a stunning, enrapturing film, a crowning work by one of the American cinema’s most essential artists.” (Godfrey Cheshire)
"While it renders a touch heavy-handed in the film’s final act when Lazzaro hastily tries to put his fairest foot forward amid a world ruled by merciless capitalism, Rohrwacher still manages to pack an undeniably poignant punch with the simplest of questions: in a world defined by helplessness and social injustice, how far would one get by instincts of basic decency alone? Easily among this year’s finest films and laced with an unapologetic social message, “Happy As Lazzaro” dares one to imagine a reality where each individual would task themselves to be as selfless and morally whole as its main protagonist. If only." (Tomris Laffly)
"This is the kind of film that evokes stylistic predecessors like Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction"—another criss-crossing narrative about several tangentially related small-time crooks—and the fiction films of Chinese filmmaker Zhangke Jia, whose melodramas all concern hard-luck laborers who turn to crime in order to escape dirt road poverty. Still, "Have a Nice Day" stands apart because of its bitterly funny black humor, and idiosyncratic animation and sound design. Writer/director Liu Jian has taken familiar stylistic elements, and made them feel fresh, and exciting. "Have a Nice Day" may be Liu’s second feature after "Piercing I," but it feels like a major breakthrough." (Simon Abrams)
“Aster and the cast make you care about these disturbed people and fear what they might do to one another, themselves and strangers. When something awful invariably does happen, you feel sadness as well as shock, because now it's going to be even harder for the Grahams to climb out of the pit of sadness that the grandmother's death cast them into, and finally address past traumas that they've been ignoring or covering up.” (Matt Zoller Seitz)
"“If Beale Street Could Talk” leaves the viewer with feelings of anger at the fate society forces Fonny to accept, but it also conjures up some optimism for his and Tish’s future. This isn’t a happy film but it isn’t a hopeless one, either. The most striking thing that you’ll take with you is that Baldwin’s novel was written 44 years ago, but it’s just as timely now." (Odie Henderson)
“Altogether, the accomplishments of “The Insult” place Doueiri in the company of such masters of politicized suspense as Costa-Gavras and Asghar Farhadi. A great director already, he is surely one to watch in the future.” (Godfrey Cheshire)
“In Kunhardt’s film, the embrace of quiet, ordinary moments not only aids in the illumination of King himself, but also in the America in which he preached. The camera lingers on the normalcy of city streets, suburban neighborhoods, and churches, juxtaposing these peaceful places with chaotic footage from the '60s: loud, chaotic, taken with shaky cameras, or immortalized in static photographs.” (Arielle Bernstein)
“Everyone needs to choose their own way. In "Leave No Trace," Granik creates a specific mood, gloomy and yet redemptive, sometimes simultaneously. The redemption is painful, though, because it comes with such a hefty price.” (Sheila O’Malley)
“To add a twist to this demonstration, Denis breaks it off late in the movie, and jumps briefly into someone else’s storyline, someone who had been a stranger up to this point. Then the filmmaker wraps it up in a final shot that’s both cerebral, whimsical and wry in its wisdom. The film’s confidence comes in part from the acceptance of the things that can’t be known.” (Glenn Kenny)
“Without ever spelling it out, Esparza shows us how our treatment of one another as members of the same human family is a direct rebuke to the divisions enforced by tyrants to keep us frightened and isolated. In its poetic simplicity, the film’s deeply moving final shot suggests that our estrangement can be mended the moment we choose to lock eyes and listen to each other, allowing our voices to rise above the deafening cries of our presumptions.” (Matt Fagerholm)
“The power in this story from comes from its very distilled manner: it tells a timeless story about hard work by completely immersing us in the steps of process, focusing on an act of incredible physical commitment.” (Nick Allen)
“Among its many notable achievements, “Memoir of War” is one of the best films I’ve seen about the ways in which grief can pull a person in both directions simultaneously. Whereas the film’s first half plays more like a thriller, the second half proves to be an emotionally wrenching interlude perched on pins and needles.” (Matt Fagerholm)
“This movie doesn't just give you the general outlines of its main characters' lives and send you out wiping away tears; it paints a vivid picture of lower-middle class life in a depressed American city (Rockford, Illinois) that movies rarely show us.” (Matt Zoller Seitz)
“It’s got that finely-tuned, perfect blend of every technical element that it takes to make a great action film, all in service of a fantastic script and anchored by great action performances to not just work within the genre but to transcend it. This is one of the best movies of the year.” (Brian Tallerico)
“Wiseman, who customarily mans one camera, oversees the audio mix and edits his films, is 88 years old now; despite its lack of overt subjectivity, the movie seems preoccupied with mortality in a way that has little to do with its ostensible subject. I hope Wiseman is well and happily at work on his next film. But there’s an implication of a testament here that makes “Monrovia, Indiana” unalike in a poignant way.” (Glenn Kenny)
““The Other Side of the Wind” is a very rich film and a very difficult one. I’ve seen it nearly three times now and what I intuit about the aspects of it that “work,” and those where the seams just show too nakedly shift all the time.” (Glenn Kenny)
“This film is a reminder that the smallness of life can feel huge when we're in the middle of it. A perfect final shot sums up everything "Private Life" has been telling us and showing us, while letting us imagine Rachel and Richard's destiny for ourselves.” (Matt Zoller Seitz)
“Chloé Zhao’s “The Rider,” is the kind of rare work that seems to attain greatness through an almost alchemical fusion of nominal opposites. An account of rodeo riders on a South Dakota reservation, it is so fact-based that it almost qualifies as a documentary. Yet the film’s style, its sense of light and landscape and mood, simultaneously give it the mesmerizing force of the most confident cinematic poetry.” (Godfrey Cheshire)
“Cuaron has made his most personal film to date, and the blend of the humane and the artistic within nearly every scene is breathtaking. It’s a masterful achievement in filmmaking as an empathy machine, a way for us to spend time in a place, in an era, and with characters we never would otherwise.” (Brian Tallerico)
“Cardona may have taken something from them they will never fully get back, but Tan’s documentary returns the narrative back to her and her friends. He no longer has the last word on “Shirkers,” they do. And isn’t reclaiming our stories what this cultural moment is all about?” (Monica Castillo)
“This is minimalist directing of a high order, practically invisible in its choices and effects, but repeated so often that it seems unquestionably indicative of a very particular style—one that aims to create the conditions necessary to birth a compelling though understated remembrance of unimaginable pain. The story is shaped in the process of recording it, rather than being excessively manipulated after the fact.” (Matt Zoller Seitz)
““Shoplifters” feels like a natural extension of themes that Kore-eda has been exploring his entire career regarding family, inequity, and the unseen residents of a crowded city like Tokyo. With this movie especially, his characters and their predicament are not merely mouthpieces for the issues that interest him but fully-realized people who feel like they existed before the film started and will go on after it ends.” (Brian Tallerico)
“The emotional currents that power Steve McQueen’s brilliant genre exercise are different—it’s societal inequity, exhaustion at corruption, and outright anger at a bullshit system that steals from the poor to give to the rich. McQueen’s masterful film is the kind that works on multiple levels simultaneously—as pure pulp entertainment but also as a commentary on how often it feels like we have to take what we are owed or risk never getting it at all.” (Brian Tallerico)
“"You Were Never Really Here" is a taut and almost unbearably intense 90-minutes, without an ounce of fat on it. Ramsay doesn't give you a second to breathe. It's grim, it’s dark, it’s delirious fun.” (Sheila O’Malley)
“”Zama” is a mordantly funny and relentlessly modernist critique of colonialism that makes no conclusions, ultimately resting on a scene of verdant nature not entirely stained by humanity.” (Glenn Kenny)
The best films of 2019, as chosen by the staff of RogerEbert.com.
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The top 50 shows of the 2010s.
A review of three premieres from Telluride.