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Kenneth Turan’s best movies of 2019: ‘Ford v Ferrari’ races to the top

The best movies of 2019
The best movies of 2019
(Peter and Maria Hoey / For The Times)
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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.

The year in entertainment: 2019’s best movies, music, TV shows, games and more

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.

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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.

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1. “Ford v Ferrari”
Christian Bale in “Ford v Ferrari.”
Christian Bale in “Ford v Ferrari.”
(Merrick Morton / Twentieth Century Fox)

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:

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“The Irishman”
(L-R) Jesse Plemons, Ray Romano, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino in “The Irishman.”
(L-R) Jesse Plemons, Ray Romano, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino in “The Irishman.”
(Netflix)

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.

4
Israeli/Palestinian cinema
‘Working Woman’ / ‘Tel Aviv on Fire’
Liron Ben Shlush in a scene from “Working Woman,” left, and Kris Nashik in “Tel Aviv on Fire.”
(Kino Lorber | Patricia Peribáñez/Cohen Media Group)

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.

5
“Little Women”
Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, Eliza Scanlen and Florence Pugh in “Little Women.”
Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, Eliza Scanlen and Florence Pugh in “Little Women.”
(Wilson Webb/ Columbia Pictures)

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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.

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“Maiden” and “The Cave”
‘Maiden’ / ‘The Cave ‘
Tracy Edwards and Mikaela Von Koskull in a scene from “Maiden,” left, and Dr. Amani (center) and Dr Alaa (right) in the operating room in a scene from “The Cave.”
(Tracy Edwards/Sony Pictures Classics | National Geographic)

I saw literally dozens of documentaries this year good enough for anyone’s list, but these two, both featuring resilient women in against-impossible-odds situations, stood out for me.

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“Marriage Story”
Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in “Marriage Story.”
Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in “Marriage Story.”
(Wilson Webb/Netflix)

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.

8
“1917”
(center) George MacKay in “1917.”
(center) George MacKay in “1917.”
(Francois Duhamel / Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures)

Director Sam Mendes went all out in re-creating the battlescape of World War I, and the results are beyond impressive.

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“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”
(L-R)- Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood.”
(L-R)- Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood.”
(Andrew Cooper/Columbia Pictures)

An admiring re-creation of Hollywood 1969 that strikes a distinctly elegiac and unexpectedly emotional chord, especially coming from Quentin Tarantino.

10
“Pain and Glory”
la_Ca_PAIN_AND_GLORY_MOVIE_225.JPG
Antonio Banderas and Nora Navas in “Pain and Glory.”
(© El Deseo. Manolo Pavón/Sony Pictures Classics.)

Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar forging dazzling new paths while being completely himself and providing a master class in personal cinema.

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“Toy Story 4” and “I Lost My Body”
‘Toy Story 4' / ‘I Lost My Body’
Bo Peep (center) introduces Woody (left) to her best friend Giggle McDimples (right) in “Toy Story 4,” top, and a scene from the film “I Lost My Body.”
(Disney/Pixar | Netflix)

The yin and yang of contemporary animation: the first the surprisingly emotional latest from Pixar, the second a surreal knockout from France that is dark, strange and altogether wonderful.

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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:

José Acosta and Natalia Reyes in “Birds of Passage.”
José Acosta and Natalia Reyes in “Birds of Passage.”
(Films Boutique)

“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.

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“Captain Marvel” and “Fast Color”: Two sides of the superhero coin.

Eddie Murphy as Dolemite
Eddie Murphy in “Dolemite Is My Name.”
(Francois Duhamel/Netflix)

“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.

The Ballad of Richard Jewell
(L-r) Jon Hamm, Ian Gomez and Paul Walter Hauser in “Richard Jewell.”
(Claire Folger/Warner Bros. )

“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.


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Kenneth Turan is film critic for the Los Angeles Times and National Public Radio’s Morning Edition as well as the director of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes.