A 10 best list sounds straightforward enough, but as anyone who’s compiled one — and I’ve done a few — can attest, it’s anything but.
Since quality is to a surprising extent in the eye of the beholder, one of the things you’re doing with your list is expressing preference, saying in effect, “This is what I like, this is something I value.”
You do this not only to encourage the creators and to help moviegoers find things to enjoy, but also to point out that certain kinds of filmmaking are endangered, are in need of encouragement and support if they are to survive.
While this may seem to indicate highbrow fare, in fact the opposite is true. As a glance at the nominees for both the Spirit and the Gotham awards confirm, deep-dish artistic films are as thick on the land as superhero movies, and no one needs Martin Scorsese to tell them how omnipresent those are.
What is endangered, in fact, is what was once Hollywood’s stock in trade, the smart and splendidly crafted big-budget movie that joins a modern sensibility to traditional storytelling in a way that doesn’t insult your intelligence.
1. “Ford v Ferrari”
It is in this spirit that I’m putting James Mangold’s “Ford v Ferrari” at No. 1. To be honest, I considered other, more expected options, admirable films one and all that ended up elsewhere on my list.
But finally nothing excited me so much, nothing so revived my spirits, nothing made me feel the kinds of films I love just might survive more than the one film I could not live without, and so to the top it went.
As has become habitual with me, I’ve chosen to list the rest of my films alphabetically, not numerically. Here goes:
Instead of gangland business as usual, this intoxicating film allowed director Martin Scorsese to use his expected mastery of all elements of filmmaking to ends we did not see coming.
I counted four superb films from this beleaguered part of the world (“Working Woman,” “The Reports on Sarah and Saleem,” “The Other Story,” “Tel Aviv on Fire”) with a fifth (“Synonyms”) highly recommended and a sixth (the award-winning “Incitement”) due out early 2020. If another part of the world had a better year, I can’t think of it.
Created by Greta Gerwig and starring a transcendent Saoirse Ronan, this latest version of the beloved novel succeeds because its strong, unmistakable message and even stronger emotions reinforce each other to splendid effect.
Noah Baumbach at the top of his masterful game, casting Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as a couple whose relationship doesn’t so much dissolve as achingly evolve.
Director Sam Mendes went all out in re-creating the battlescape of World War I, and the results are beyond impressive.
“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”
An admiring re-creation of Hollywood 1969 that strikes a distinctly elegiac and unexpectedly emotional chord, especially coming from Quentin Tarantino.
“Pain and Glory”
Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar forging dazzling new paths while being completely himself and providing a master class in personal cinema.
A Second 10
In addition, in a stratagem I began last year, I’m going to include a Second 10 list of marvelous items too good not to tip the hat to:
“Birds of Passage”: From Colombia, a dazzling combination of bravura filmmaking, political awareness and a probing social conscience.
“Blinded By the Light”: Bruce Springsteen and Gurinda Chadha’s Bollywood moves are an irresistible combination.
“Bombshell”: Ripped from the headlines cinema at its best.
“Captain Marvel” and “Fast Color”: Two sides of the superhero coin.
“Dolemite Is My Name” and “Late Night”: Adult laughs are few and far between any year, so attention must be paid.
“Edge of Democracy” and “Sea of Shadows”: Two more docs, this pair giving dramatic heft to real-world problems in Brazil and underwater.
“Les Misérables”: France’s Oscar nominee balances edge-of-your-seat storytelling with criticism of a system that allows crushing poverty to survive and prosper.
“Peterloo”: Historical and contemporary, epic and intimate, political and personal, it’s both unlike Mike Leigh’s earlier work and the grand culmination of his career.
“Richard Jewell”: Clint Eastwood directs the hell out of this story of a real-life miscarriage of justice.
“The Two Popes”: Think of this as Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce doing a Vatican City version of “Going My Way.”
And before I go, I want to acknowledge my gratitude for a bumper crop of reissues: “Mr. Klein,” “Christ Stopped at Eboli,” “Paris Is Burning” and “Shiraz” shone as brightly as ever, and we were fortunate to have them on big screens one more time.
Two clever and wickedly funny looks at class warfare lead a standout year for deeply personal movies.