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The Best Movies Of 2019

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now film critic Bob Mondello's 10 best movies of the year. It is a list so jam-packed with movie greatness that - well, I'll let Bob tell you.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: It takes a couple of years to make a movie, so capturing this moment in time isn't quite what Hollywood does. But it's undeniable that a world in conflict is currently prompting some terrific movies about conflict, none more immediate than a battlefield epic that sends two British soldiers on a mission in which the tension has nearly as much to do with camera work as with carnage.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "1917")

GEORGE MACKAY: (As Lance Corporal Schofield) Dogfight.

DEAN-CHARLES CHAPMAN: (As Lance Corporal Blake) Who's winning?

MACKAY: (As Lance Corporal Schofield) Us, I think.

MONDELLO: Director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins have contrived to make "1917" look like a single, uninterrupted shot - no visible edits, no dissolves, no cuts to a close-up. The camera glides along just in front of the men, just behind them, pivoting sometimes to catch an expression or a flare or a plane falling out of the sky headed straight for them and for us.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

MONDELLO: The effect is that we're there with the men in real time.

"1917" is set in World War I. Terrence Malick's gorgeous "A Hidden Life" is set in World War II, an epic of conscience about an Austrian farmer who refuses to pledge allegiance to Hitler...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A HIDDEN LIFE")

AUGUST DIEHL: (As Franz Jagerstatter) I can't do what I believe is wrong.

MONDELLO: ...An urgent, wrenching story in which the leading man's suffering...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A HIDDEN LIFE")

DIEHL: (As Franz Jagerstatter) I have to stand up to evil.

MONDELLO: ...Is offset by Malick's always-exquisite images. Another filmmaker with a distinctive style and a taste for cinematic conflict - Martin Scorsese. His film "The Irishman" is a mob flick set during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and bearing the weight of that history. Robert De Niro plays a hitman, Al Pacino is Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa, and Joe Pesci is a messenger for mobsters who want to rein Hoffa in.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE IRISHMAN")

JOE PESCI: (As Russell Bufalino) He's in the higher-ups.

ROBERT DE NIRO: (As Frank Sheeran) Well, he's a higher-up, too. I mean, nobody...

PESCI: (As Russell Bufalino) Not like this, you know?

DE NIRO: (As Frank Sheeran) Come on. I'll find him.

PESCI: (As Russell Bufalino) If they can whack a president, they can whack a president of a union.

MONDELLO: "The Irishman," though grand and violent and clearly designed for the big screen, was barely in theaters before it started streaming. That's also true of Noah Baumbach's phenomenal "Marriage Story," a film that treats divorce as a kind of escalating, no-holds-barred domestic warfare.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MARRIAGE STORY")

ADAM DRIVER: (As Charlie) Every day, I wake up, and I hope you're dead - dead like, if I can guarantee Henry will be OK, I hope you get an illness and then get hit by a car and die.

MONDELLO: Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson begin "Marriage Story" seeking an amicable settlement. Then divorce lawyers get involved, and the pain becomes intense.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MARRIAGE STORY")

DRIVER: (As Charlie) I'm sorry.

SCARLETT JOHANSSON: (As Nicole) Me, too.

MONDELLO: There are echoes of writer-director Noah Baumbach's own divorce in "Marriage Story," so it's reassuring that he and his current partner, Greta Gerwig, are each thriving behind the camera. Gerwig has adapted and directed Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women," turning that Civil War-era tale into this year's most exuberantly entertaining and pointed costume drama.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LITTLE WOMEN")

SAOIRSE RONAN: (As Jo March) I intend to make my own way in the world.

MERYL STREEP: (As Aunt March) Oh, well, no. No one makes their own way, not really - least of all a woman. You'll need to marry well.

RONAN: (As Jo March) But you are not married, Aunt March.

STREEP: (As Aunt March) Well, that's because I'm rich.

MONDELLO: "Little Women" brings my list to five. The next three are also directed by women, and not surprisingly, when women direct films about women, the results are smart and sophisticated. Mati Diop became the first black woman to direct a film in competition at the Cannes Film Festival with "Atlantics."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ATLANTICS")

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (As characters, chanting in non-English language).

MONDELLO: It's a powerful take on immigration issues, a romance/police procedural/ghost story about women left behind as the men of Senegal try to smuggle themselves into Europe.

There are hardly any men at all in Celine Sciamma's "Portrait Of A Lady On Fire," a French costume drama about an 18th century heiress who resists sitting for her bridal portrait...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE")

ADELE HAENEL: (As Heloise, speaking French).

MONDELLO: ...Until she's seduced by the woman who's painting her. "Portrait Of A Lady On Fire" is a ravishing and, as you might expect, a painterly film.

More contemporary and down-to-earth is Lulu Wang's "The Farewell," a quietly devastating dramedy about Chinese Americans who are hiding their grandma's terminal diagnosis from grandma, a notion her granddaughter, who's played by Awkwafina, can't seem to get her head around.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FAREWELL")

TZI MA: (As Haiyan Wang) The family thinks it's better not to tell her.

AWKWAFINA: (As Billi Wang) Why is that better?

DIANA LIN: (As Lu Jian) Chinese people have a saying. When people get cancer, they die.

MONDELLO: "The Farewell" is based on the director's own family story, and she tells it in ways that are both funny and resonant.

That's eight. Rounding out my top 10 are two films that, if they were in English, would be frontrunners for best picture at the Oscars. The Korean social satire "Parasite" starts out as a comedy of manners about two families - one wealthy, the other working-class...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PARASITE")

LEE SUN-KYUN: (As Park Dong-ik, laughter).

MONDELLO: ...Then curdles into a furious snarl of class rage.

And from Spain comes a sunny autobiographical comedy, Pedro Almodovar's "Pain And Glory," about a filmmaker estranged from and then reunited with the star he made famous decades earlier. Antonio Banderas plays the filmmaker, and if you know that he was himself estranged from and then reunited with Almodovar, who made him famous, the story comes together with a satisfying snap.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PAIN AND GLORY")

ANTONIO BANDERAS: (As Salvador Mallo, speaking Spanish).

MONDELLO: It's also fascinating as a film about filmmaking.

Ten is an arbitrary number, and I've still got some time, so I'm going to keep going. Like Almodovar, Quentin Tarantino has been looking back at filmmaking with a nostalgic eye. His "Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood" is about a 1960s TV star and his stunt double best buddy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ONCE UPON A TIME... IN HOLLYWOOD")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) So, Rick, explain to the audience exactly what it is a stunt double does.

LEONARDO DICAPRIO: (As Rick Dalton) Actors are required to do a lot of dangerous stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIGHT AMBIENCE)

DICAPRIO: (As Rick Dalton) Cliff here is meant to help carry the load.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Is that how you describe your job, Cliff?

BRAD PITT: (As Cliff Booth) What, carrying his load? That's about right.

MONDELLO: Two other buddy flicks stretch the form in offbeat ways - "The Lighthouse," a black-and-white weirdness that's half-sea shanty, half-horror-comedy with Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LIGHTHOUSE")

WILLEM DAFOE: (As Thomas Wake) Why'd you spill your beans?

MONDELLO: ...And "Ford V. Ferrari," a true-story racing flick starring Matt Damon, Christian Bale and the hottest cars this side of Lamont.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR ENGINE REVVING)

MONDELLO: "Ford V. Ferrari" is like comfort food - old-fashioned moviemaking at its most confident.

Other films went for a surprise. The German film "Transit," for instance, feels like a Holocaust film from the 1940s, but it's set the day after tomorrow. Equally startling, a sweetly philosophical animated film in which a severed hand goes looking for its owner - "I Lost My Body" has more imaginative oomph in any three minutes than "Frozen II" does in its whole running time.

Splendid documentaries include "The Cave," about a woman doctor in an underground Syrian hospital, "The Biggest Little Farm," which will make you want to take up organic farming immediately, and "Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am," which makes a great writer who died this year wonderfully accessible.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM")

TONI MORRISON: A friend of mine called me up early in the morning and said, Toni, you won the Nobel Prize. And I remember holding the phone thinking, she must be drunk.

MONDELLO: Punch-drunk performances power "Synonyms," about an Israeli soldier who thinks he can turn himself French using a thesaurus, and "Uncut Gems," which, in a perfect world, would win Adam Sandler an Oscar.

That's 20. What do you think? Can I squeeze in a quirky story about cultural appropriation, "The Last Black Man In San Francisco"? Apparently, I can, which makes 21 reasons for confidence in movies as we head into a new decade. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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