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NPR’s Favorite Movies Of 2019

The Cave, The Farewell, Booksmart, Little Women, Hustlers and Fast Color (from left, starting in top row) all made NPR's favorite-movie list this year.

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NPR’s movie critic and Pop Culture Happy Hour hosts picked 20 of their favorite films of the year.

1917

Working with stories his grandfather told him, Skyfall director Sam Mendes has crafted a World War I battlefield saga about British soldiers tasked with getting an urgent message to the front. About 1,600 lives are at stake, so there’s urgency aplenty. And with Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins on hand, it was bound to have epic sweep. Mendes and Deakins employ all the usual war-movie tricks, with one extra: They’ve told the story in real time, contriving to make the film — from trench explosions to airplane crashes to waterfall slaloming — look like a single continuous shot. — Bob Mondello

Atlantics

Mati Diop’s Cannes award-winning debut feature is a genre exercise in which genres morph at will, with Senegalese history twisting together with magical realism in a narrative pretzel. What begins as a labor-dispute drama becomes, by turns, a romance, a police procedural, a comedy and, finally, a haunting ghost story grounded in woman power, class resistance and the tragedy of mass migration. — Bob Mondello

Avengers: Endgame

Say what you will — you can’t deny that the final chapter of a decade of big-budget Marvel superhero storytelling didn’t feel like the culmination it was. And for all the talk of Thanos, Endgame was never about the villain. Nor was it about the Snapture, which we can all now agree was pretty goofy, as heroic dilemmas go. No, it was about this roster of heroes we’ve come to know, each vibrating at his or her (but mostly his) respective frequency, converging one final time. The result was sad, and thrilling (“On your left!”) and — most importantly — satisfying. — Glen Weldon

Booksmart

Beanie Feldstein is a force of nature as a high school overachiever who, on the eve of her graduation, begins to wonder if she needed to work so hard. Kaitlyn Dever, who had a fantastic 2019 between this and the Netflix series Unbelievable, is her best pal. The two have a chemistry that’s both intimate and fraught, just like real best friends, and the tensions between them feel earned and important. Billie Lourd turns in a scene-stealing turn as a girl who just keeps showing up everywhere, and the movie builds to one of the most satisfying conclusions a comedy provides this year. — Linda Holmes

The Cave

Director Feras Fayyad (Last Men in Aleppo) has built his riveting documentary around Amani Ballour, a heroic female doctor operating a hospital in tunnels under the city of Ghouta during Syria’s civil war. Her struggle to save lives is complicated by all the usual horrors of war — bombing, starvation, insufficient medical supplies — and a few others exclusive to this conflict: the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons on its own people and sexism that leads the people benefiting from the doctor’s work to disparage her for working. — Bob Mondello

The Farewell

Writer-director Lulu Wang’s film is based on the radio piece she did for This American Life, which was based on her own life: Her beloved grandmother back in China was dying, but her family refused to tell this news to the elderly woman. In the film, Billi (Awkwafina) flies to China to be with Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), reluctantly going along with the lie. The Farewell is the kind of film in which characters spout broad characterizations about the cultural differences between East and West — pronouncements that should seem ham-fisted, and land with a thud. But Wang’s direction is so intimate and sharply observed, and the performances so natural and unforced, that this warm and gentle film earns every emotion it wrings from you. — Glen Weldon

Fast Color

Marvel movies have been around so long that it’s easy to forget that their big-budget effects, A-list stars and sweeping scope represent just one approach to superhero storytelling. There have been several stripped-down, character-based takes on the genre before (Chronicle, Super), but Fast Color exudes a confidence — and a skill for clever, unshowy world-building — that even the most bloated blockbuster would envy. Julia Hart’s visually gorgeous film about a young black woman with destructive powers (a compelling, grounded Gugu Mbatha-Raw) embraces the metaphor at the heart of the superhero idea and proceeds to unpack it in a host of fun and surprising ways. — Glen Weldon

Gloria Bell

Back in late February, as I was grunting my way through a set of barbell squats, my egregiously heterosexual personal trainer asked me if there were any movies coming out soon that he would like to see. I remember thinking to myself: “In the magnificent Gloria Bell, Julianne Moore plays a well-meaning but basic woman who channels the transformative, redemptive power of disco music and wrap dresses; she ultimately realizes every gay man’s dream of getting rescued from a humiliating experience by the loving embrace of Holland Taylor. The film’s entire emotional arc takes place in close-up, across the porcelain plains of Moore’s perfect face.” I told him he’d like The Beach Bum. — Glen Weldon

Hustlers

All hail Jennifer Lopez, who opened a fur coat and welcomed both Constance Wu and an entire moviegoing audience eager to see Lopez in another solid movie role. As Ramona, an experienced stripper who leads a team of scammers, she’s merciless and athletic, drawing the eye as only a movie star can. The story has a surprising heart, and Keke Palmer is particularly funny and likeable as a member of the team. It’s a good time and a good showcase for a number of performances. And that fur coat is already iconic. — Linda Holmes

I Lost My Body

The first three minutes of this animated French puzzler — in which a severed hand escapes a dissection lab and embarks on a peril-filled odyssey to seek its body — contains more imaginative oomph than all of Frozen II. And the film gets only quirkier from that bizarre beginning, bobbing and weaving through a romance between a hapless pizza delivery guy and a high-rise-dwelling hipster to contemplate profound questions about fate — and what the future holds. — Bob Mondello

The Irishman

For the first two of the film’s luxuriously rich 3 1/2 hours, Martin Scorsese’s epic offers the sort of raucous, splattery, mob-movie spectacle he has so often trafficked in, with a digitally de-aged Robert De Niro as the titular hit man and Al Pacino as Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa. Then the screenplay nudges the actors in sadder directions, and the story gets more invested in loss. For while The Irishman is, like many mob movies, about violence and betrayal, it’s the work of a filmmaker who has earned the right to sum up this genre. So it’s also about regrets, remorse, reckonings; it’s an elegy. — Bob Mondello

Knives Out

What a delight to see a film so attentive to detail, so finely and fondly crafted, and so beautifully cast — one that has no higher goal than to entertain. Rian Johnson’s comedic whodunit gives delicious moments to every member of its all-star cast, and it spotlights Ana de Armas, who plays it mostly straight in a film full of hams and stands out anyway. Like or lump Daniel Craig’s goofy Southern accent, you have to admit this family really knows how to fight. — Linda Holmes

The Lighthouse

Two men — a crusty old salt (Willem Dafoe) and a taciturn young landlubber (Robert Pattinson) — begin a monthlong shift as keepers of a lonely lighthouse. Things proceed to go gorgeously, grotesquely and full-tilt bananapants awry. From its opening frame, a gray ship emerging from a gray mist (the film is shot in stunning black-and-white), Robert Eggers’ film careens from the hilarious to the horrific, from the gritty to the surreal. Dafoe is wonderful, but — surprisingly, perhaps — it’s Pattinson who takes the bigger swing. He goes big, and it pays off hugely. And so, so goofily. — Glen Weldon

Little Women

Greta Gerwig finds a perfect Lady Bird follow-up in the story of the March sisters. Faithful to the tone of the book and most of the particulars, Gerwig nevertheless changes the structure and the emphasis in ways that make the tale feel more satisfying and complete. Amy is more than a brat; Beth is more than a saint. Gerwig invests in all the characters, and she emphasizes how Jo (Saoirse Ronan) is a writer not only of passion but also of commerce. — Linda Holmes

Marriage Story

Director Noah Baumbach gets excellent work from Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as a divorcing couple watching their split become more and more acrimonious. As their lawyers, Laura Dern, Ray Liotta and Alan Alda do very good supporting work, and a late piano-bar scene — one of several 2019 salutes to the power of Stephen Sondheim — layers theater history atop the film in an intriguing way. Arguments have brewed over whose side to be on (and whose side the film is on), but more than anything, it’s on the side of divorce being a demoralizing, painful experience even for people who hope it won’t be. — Linda Holmes

Midsommar

A young woman (Florence Pugh) reeling from a family tragedy finds herself in a remote Swedish commune under the flat light of a merciless midnight sun. The horrors that proceed to emerge in Ari Aster’s haunting film aren’t cloaked in shadow, and the matter-of-fact clarity with which they occur makes them all the more disturbing. The truly malevolent, unseen forces that drive Midsommar aren’t supernatural but too unsettlingly human: grief, guilt and our need for community, whatever the emotional cost. — Glen Weldon

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood

The title’s a tipoff: Quentin Tarantino’s love letter to Hollywood takes place inside a fable of Southern California that’s sun blasted by day and neon lit by night. It’s a place and a time rife with a history that, in Tarantino’s hands, gets massaged until it goes a bit feathery at the edges. Fading action star Rick Dalton (an anxious, needy Leonardo DiCaprio) and his faithful stand-in, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, who here somehow manages to embody a humble swagger), navigate the transition from film to television, from Old Hollywood to New, and from button-down order to Manson Family chaos. — Glen Weldon

Pain and Glory

Pedro Almodóvar’s quasi-autobiographical opus finds a film director (Antonio Banderas) looking back on the breakage in his life — his health, his family, his loves and, centrally, the decades-long silence between him and an actor he helped put on the map. If you know that in real life, Banderas and Almodóvar had barely spoken since their early films together, that plotline will resonate. But the parallel wouldn’t matter if the film weren’t ravishing on its own. Pain and Glory revels in art, passion and the origins of desire; it’s Almodóvar’s most affecting, accomplished and personal work in years. — Bob Mondello

Parasite

Here’s a tale of two Korean families: the wealthy Parks, who live in a designer house on a hill, and the scrappy, working-class Kims, who inhabit a grungy basement apartment across town. When the Parks employ the Kims in their home, the stage is set for writer-director Bong Joon-ho’s caustic social satire. Initially, it plays as a comedy of manners in which the haves aren’t hateful, just insensitive. By the last reel, the film becomes a metaphor for class war, and that comedy of manners has curdled into a furious snarl of rage. — Bob Mondello

Us

Doppelgangers are an unsettling horror trope, but in Jordan Peele’s film, the red-suited, scissor-wielding doubles of a nice family on vacation are even creepier than usual. Lupita Nyong’o is brilliant as Red, the leader of the group of invaders, and she invents a spidery walk that is somehow almost human but very much not. Peele’s themes of what is seen and what is hidden come through loud and clear, and the ambiguous final moments are intriguing without seeming unfair. — Linda Holmes

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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