2019 was perhaps the greatest year ever for motion picture documentaries. Films about “Fiddler on the Roof,” singer Linda Ronstadt and television news journalist Mike Wallace graced theaters this year. But it was a surprisingly weak year otherwise. Still, there were about 20 films which stood out above the others. I’ve managed to whittle my list down to the ten best of the year.
10. In what I consider the year’s best documentary, director Patrick Creadon explored the life of former Notre Dame president Father Theodore Hesburgh – a man who was instrumental in the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam movements. But as Creadon points out in “Hesburgh,” his greatest strength was in mentoring the students whose lives he touched at Notre Dame.
9. Danny Boyle’s “Yesterday” was a fantasy about a worldwide 12-second power outage, after which no one remembers the Beatles. It’s as if they never existed. There is no mention of the world’s greatest rock band in any book or magazine. They can’t be Googled. They are gone from memory. Except for one struggling singer/songwriter who capitalizes on his ability to “write” and perform their songs – bringing him worldwide stardom. Get past the ridiculous premise, and the result was one of the most entertaining pictures in years. Himesh Patel and Lily James were brilliant in the lead roles.
8. Save for an unnecessary sequence of flashbacks in the early going, Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” was another of the year’s true joys. Although I didn’t like it as well as the 1994 version, Saoirse Ronan’s Jo March was stronger than Winona Ryder’s in the previous telling of the story. And this one provided a star-making turn for Florence Pugh as Amy, the youngest of the four March sisters.
7. Laure de Clermont-Tennerre’s “The Mustang” was released way back at the beginning of the year, but it’s stayed with me as one of the year’s strongest films. Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts is powerful as a hardened prisoner who tames a wild mustang as part of a federal program to prepare horses for auction. Schoenaerts captures the frustration of the taming process and also has some heartbreaking scenes with his estranged daughter, played by Gideon Adlon.
6. Eddie Murphy turned in his best performance in many years as a tireless self-promoter in “Dolemite is My Name,” the story of a young comedian who produces a blaxploitation flick on a shoestring budget in the 1970s and distributes it himself. Murphy takes a genuinely unlikeable character and makes us love him. The family atmosphere he creates among his cast and crew is one of the great joys of “Dolemite.” And Wesley Snipes is hilarious as the director who believes the entire film is beneath him.
5. Sam Mendes’ “1917” took its place alongside “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “Paths of Glory” as one of the best World War I films ever made. Starring young British actors George McKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, “1917” tells the fictitious tale of two soldiers assigned to transport an important message to the front lines after radio communication has been cut off. While not in the same class as “Saving Private Ryan,” it is the best war picture since that one.
4. Edward Norton wrote, directed and starred in “Motherless Brooklyn,” the story of a 1930s private eye with Tourette’s syndrome and autism who uses his disabilities to crack a murder case with repercussions resonating all the way to City Hall. Alec Baldwin almost overplays his hand as the corrupt city official, but Norton is spectacular as the protagonist who actually develops a relationship with a key witness, despite his maladies. Swimming in layers of plot development, “Motherless Brooklyn” is a smart, taut mystery that crackles along at a quick clip.
3. Irish singer-actress Jessie Buckley gave the best performance of anyone in any film this year in Tom Harper’s “Wild Rose,” which traces a working-class Scottish mother’s desire to become a famous country singer. Fortunately, Nicole Taylor’s screenplay focuses as much on Rose’s relationship with her children as it does with her musical ambition – giving the entire exercise a dimension we don’t expect in a rags-to-riches musical storyline. Blessed with a positive outlook and a wealth of determination, Rose’s eventual trip to Nashville is not what she expects. Buckley is as strong in presenting the musical material here as Lady Gaga was in last year’s “A Star is Born.”
2. Trey Edward Shults’ family drama “Waves” is about a star high school wrestler whose seemingly ideal life comes crashing down in a matter of days, due to a couple poor decisions. The second half of “Waves” focuses on the athlete’s kid sister and her relationship with a wrestling teammate of her brother’s. Young actors Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Taylor Russell shine as the brother and sister forced to deal with life’s tragedies at an early age. Wrenching and agonizing, “Waves” also featured the year’s best and most unique cinematography, care of newcomer Drew Daniels.
1. Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” was the only film this year which rose to the level of “greatness.” Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson turned in the best performances of their careers as a young mother and father who never really hate each other, but who probably should never have been married in the first place. Unlike Robert Benton’s 1979 film “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Marriage Story” never takes sides. Each of the protagonists is to blame for the dissolution of their once-happy marriage. Featuring great supporting turns by Ray Liotta and Alan Alda, “Marriage Story” is easily the year’s best film.