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Best movies of 2019

Amidst all the typical cinematic deja vu, the clear standouts were all distinctively original and unique works

Robert De Niro looking young and spry in "The Irishman". Photo courtesy Netflix

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1.  The Irishman

To anyone still intimidated by that three hours and 30 minutes running time: click to any random spot on the timeline and watch for a few minutes. No matter where you've landed, you'll be dropping in on a masterpiece -- from Martin Scorsese's direction to the performances of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, et al. 

If that isn't enough to persuade you to commit to the entire film, we should shake hands and go our separate ways. 

2.  Once Upon a Time in Hollywood 

Quentin Tarantino's 1969-set, stylized, trippy, wickedly funny and revisionist opus perfectly encapsulates a time of seismic cultural shifts, not only in Hollywood but in virtually every corner of the country. 

3.  The Farewell 

I loved every moment of writer-director Lulu Wang's comedy-drama about a far-flung extended family that reunites in Changchun, China, when they learn "Nai Nai" (paternal grandmother in Mandarin) is dying. Awkwafina is stunningly good as Nai Nai's granddaughter Billi, a Chinese American who has always felt like an outsider growing up in the states, but is just as uncomfortable when she returns home. 

4.  Uncut Gems 

It's hardly news when Adam Sandler flexes serious dramatic chops. Sandler has consistently demonstrated his range, but he achieves next-level brilliance as a manic, self-destructive gambler in Josh and Benny Safdie's disturbingly great Uncut Gems

5.  Waves  

Writer-director Trey Edward Shults' family-crime drama is a masterful, insightful examination of a myriad of racial and social issues. It is my hope every single member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences sees Taylor Russell's astonishingly memorable performance in this film, so she gets the best supporting actress nomination she richly deserves. 

6.  Booksmart  

Director Olivia Wilde, a quartet of gifted screenwriters (who all happen to be female), and the all-star, double-play onscreen combination of Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever, teamed up to deliver one of the funniest, smartest, fantastically ridiculous and yet relatable coming-of-age movies of the decade.

7.  Fast Color  

On some weird level, writer-director Julia Hart's beautifully filmed, admirably risk-taking, Twilight Zone-esque, increasingly involving story of a mysteriously gifted, reluctant superhero reminded me of films such as Phenomenon and Unbreakable. Only it's better. Also, as great as Gugu Mbatha-Raw is in Motherless Brooklyn and the Apple TV+ series The Morning Show, THIS is her defining performance of the year.

8.  Little Women  

Oh, for God's sake, is there REALLY a "manly man" backlash against the latest Little Women film? In just the last 18 years, we've had nine Fast and Furious movies about narcissistic, pumped-up, gym-obsessed, big men overcompensating by playing with their little cars. And yet a new version of Little Women is somehow tiresome and redundant and reductive? 

For the record: The fearsome foursome in Greta Gerwig's reinvention of the classic Louisa May Alcott story achieves a collective level of badassery and bravery rarely exhibited by the preening peacocks in those cartoon car movies. It's difficult to imagine a 21st-century male movie lover who would be so insecure he'd consider it a sign of weakness just to see this film.

9.  Parasite

After a sluggish start and some plot machinations straight out of an episode of Modern Family, Bong Joon-ho's dark and funny thriller finds its stride and absolutely kills, in more ways than one. 

10.  Queen & Slim

Labeled as "the black Bonnie and Clyde," it was actually more of an "Easy Rider-meets-Thelma and Louise" fable. Unlike the murderous career criminals Bonnie and Clyde, Daniel Kaluuya's Slim and Jodie Turner-Smith's Queen were law-abiding citizens who were turned into antiheroes on the run after a traffic stop went horribly sideways. Thanks to a smart and nuanced and at times piercingly funny screenplay from the great Lena Waithe, the strong directing work by Melina Matsoukas and the captivating performances by Kaluuya and Turner-Smith, Queen & Slim has an impressively resonant stamp all its own.

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