My lovely wife Jen and I had some people over for dinner a few months ago, and one of them noticed a red envelope sitting near our TV.
“Is that a Netflix DVD?” he asked.
“Yeah. Why, are you not a Netflix member?”
“I didn’t even know Netflix still did the DVD-by-mail thing! I thought they ended it years ago!”
I asked him, “Then how do you watch new movies?” and he catalogued a bunch of different ways: Redbox, streaming through Xfinity, Hulu, Vudu, Amazon Prime, iTunes, etc.
“Jeepers!” I said. “I can barely keep up with regular TV shows; do you think I’m with-the-times enough to subscribe to all those?”
“Not if you’re still using words like ‘jeepers.’”
Anyway, my point is, there’s too much out there, and too many ways to watch it all. (And no one gifted me the Disney+ subscription I asked for over the holidays, so I’m missing out on baby Yoda!) So you might notice that my best movies list is a little Netflix-heavy. Here’s my annual disclaimer: This isn’t a list of the best movies of 2019, but a roundup of the best films I saw, no matter what year they were released. Here we go:
10. “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” 2019 sci-fi directed by JJ Abrams, starring Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Kelly Marie Tran, and Kerri Russell. Okay, that’s a wrap on 40-plus years of Star Wars films shaping my worldview. If I had to rank Episode 9, I’d put it at fifth-best in the series. If you don’t know the major plot twist, I’ll ruin it for you now: Rosebud was a sled.
9. “Fyre,” 2019 documentary directed by Chris Smith. I first became aware of the Fyre Festival when one of my favorite bands, blink-182, announced that they were headlining the weekend music festival/experience. Then they pulled out at the last minute. Then the (mostly wealthy) customers who bought the pricey tickets started posting on social media how much of a ripoff the trip was turning out to be (e.g., the “gourmet meals” they were promised were cheese sandwiches). Then came the lawsuits, the accusations of financial misdeeds, and the jail time for one of the founders. A fascinating, funny look at how a few social-media influencers drove the initial success of what was essentially a house of cards.
8. ”The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” 2007 Western directed by Andrew Dominick, starring Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Mary-Louise Parker, and Sam Shepherd. This film reminded me of another one based on a real-life outlaw, 2009′s “Public Enemies,” with Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, in the sense that both criminals, Dillinger and James, brought about their own downfalls when they had to rely on less and less trustworthy partners to continue their robberies. Really two separate character studies, one of Jesse James and the other of Robert Ford, a wide-eyed fan of James’ who becomes a minor player in the James Gang but hopes for greater glory in bringing down the outlaw.
7. “Someone Great,” 2019 romantic comedy directed by Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, starring Gina Rodriguez, Brittany Snow, DeWanda Wise, Lakeith Stanfield, and Peter Vack. A star vehicle for Rodriguez (“Jane the Virgin”), we follow one day in her life as her two best friends try to cheer her up after her breakup with longtime boyfriend Stanfield, and we see their relationship through flashbacks. Great soundtrack and great female friendships.
6. “Always Be My Maybe,” 2019 romantic comedy directed by Nahnatchka Khan, starring Ali Wong, Randall Park, Daniel Dae Kim, and Michelle Buteau. Terrific story of a successful chef returning home to San Francisco and running into her childhood sweetheart (Park). Also with a very special cameo of a certain actor who parodies his own public persona mercilessly.
5. “Booksmart,” 2019 teen comedy directed by Olivia Wilde, starring Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Billie Catherine Lourd, Diana Silvers, and Molly Gordon. Some have called this the girls’ version of “Superbad,” and that’s not far off (Feldstein’s character is very much like that of her real-life brother Jonah Hill), but there’s more heart and depth in this film, even though it follows the teen-movie trope of two kids deciding to finally have fun and party on the last night of high school. Teen life in all its awkward, embarrassing glory. If you were a nerd in high school (hint: if you were one of my friends back then, you probably were), you will watch along in painful self-recognition.
4. “Unicorn Store,” 2017 comedy/fantasy directed by Brie Larson, starring Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Joan Cusack, Bradley Whitford, and possibly a unicorn. I don’t even know where to start with this. If you are looking for another Marvel-type action movie with the “Captain Marvel” co-stars here, you’re in the wrong place. Larson plays Kit, a lost-soul artist living in her parents’ basement, who receives an invitation from a store purporting to have available to her the purchase of a unicorn. Jackson plays the Salesman, the unicorn-store’s only employee. This will leave you confused as to where this film is going, in a good way. A sweet, big-hearted film.
3. “Plus One,” 2019 romantic comedy directed by Jeff Chan and Andrew Rhymer, starring Maya Erskine, Jack Quaid, Beck Bennett, and Rosalind Chao. Erskine and Quaid are best friends who find themselves single during high wedding season and agree to be each other’s plus one for every wedding invitation. We know where this is leading, but it’s a fun ride getting there. Quaid is the son of Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan, but he looks and acts more like a younger Joel McHale. Erskine is a revelation of the less put-together adult of the duo; she had a few moments that made me laugh out loud.
2. “Eighth Grade,” 2018 coming-of-age film directed by Bo Burnham, starring Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, and Luke Prael. This unflinching film about the growing pains of life in the social-media age is painful. There’s no glossy Hollywood sheen over this story, and Fisher is almost too real as the eighth grader struggling with depressive tendencies, boy crushes, FOMO caused by Instagram, and a father who is trying a little too hard to be liked by her. I happened to be living through this story (from the dad’s point of view) when I saw it, and I loudly recommended it to all of my daughter’s parents. Watching this actress bravely play out the pool-party scene was amazing (also very hard to sit through).
1. “Three Identical Strangers,” 2018 documentary drama/mystery directed by Tim Wardle. What an amazing, “this can’t possibly be true, but it is” story. In 1980, a New Yorker named Bobby Shafran goes to a community college and on his first day on campus is constantly mistaken for another guy who had gone there the year before named David Kellman. One of David’s friends calls David and says, “You have to meet this guy, he looks just like you.” So they meet and discover that they were both adopted and are indeed brothers. After the story runs in New York papers, another New Yorker, Eddie Galland, sees their photo in the paper, and thinks, “I look just like them, and I was adopted…” The story that ensues is at first celebratory and uplifting. But then things take a darker turn as we learn about the reasons for their separation at birth and how their different upbringings affect their adulthoods in tragic ways. A sometimes sad, sometimes heartwarming documentary that stayed with me for a long time afterwards.
Movies that just missed the cut: “Juliet, Naked,” “Free Solo,” “The Tomorrow Man,” “A Simple Favor,” “Studio 54,” “All Is True,” “Under the Eiffel Tower,” “Echo In the Canyon.”