NEW YORK. The year 2019 saw the release of quality films across a wide range of genres, from a comic book-based extravaganza and a family drama about a Chinese American clan to a crackerjack murder mystery.
Below — in alphabetical order — are the Media Review Office of Catholic News Service’s picks for last year’s Top 10 movies overall.
In the compelling sci-fi drama “Ad Astra,” an astronaut (Brad Pitt) goes on a quest to communicate with his father (Tommy Lee Jones), a pioneer space traveler who long ago disappeared during a mission to search for extraterrestrial life from the outer boundaries of the solar system. By turns an epic and an intimate character study, director and co-writer James Gray’s moody film features several brief scenes of prayer that will intrigue believers. (A-III, PG-13)
Primarily set five years after a cosmic villain (Josh Brolin) wiped out half of all the living creatures in the universe, the sweeping Marvel Comics-based epic “Avengers: Endgame” charts the efforts of the titular ensemble to harness time travel via Ant Man’s (Paul Rudd) quantum realm to undo the catastrophe. To achieve this, they need to win over tech whiz Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), but he’s reluctant to endanger his happy home life (shared with Gwyneth Paltrow). Vast, intricate and impressive, directors (and brothers) Anthony and Joe Russo’s grand finale deftly weaves together whole franchises spanning 21 previous films while also showcasing teamwork, self-sacrifice and reconciliation. (A-III, PG-13)
Chronicling the events of June 17, 2015, when a gunman opened fire during a Bible study being conducted at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the moving documentary “Emanuel” celebrates the lives of the victims as well as the love and forgiveness demonstrated by the survivors and family members toward the perpetrator. Filmmaker Brian Ivie focuses not on the racial hatred that motivated the shootings, but on the faith-filled response of the people most affected by the tragedy. (A-II, not rated)
In “The Farewell,” cultural difference lead to family tension as a young Chinese American aspiring writer (rapper Awkwafina) learns that her much-loved grandmother (Shuzhen Zhou) has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and that her parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin), along with her other relatives, intend to keep the dying woman in the dark about her condition, a decision with which the daughter vehemently disagrees. Writer-director Lulu Wang, basing her film on personal experiences, skillfully lightens her thoughtful drama by combining it with a comedy of manners. The delicate result is deep in insight and rich in emotion. (A-III, PG)
In the fact-based drama “Ford v Ferrari,” director James Mangold, working from a screenplay by brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller, keeps the story stripped down to the competition between automakers Ford (led by Tracy Letts and Jon Bernthal) and Ferrari (its namesake founder played by Remo Girone) to have their cars win the grueling 24-hour Le Mans road race in 1966. Car developer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and daredevil British driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) fight off their personal troubles to form a successful partnership in which they also keep the corporate types at bay. (A-III, PG-13)
“Just Mercy” recounts how a Harvard educated lawyer (Michael B. Jordan) worked, with the help of a local activist (Brie Larson), to save the life of an Alabama death-row prisoner (Jamie Foxx) convicted on feeble evidence of the murder of an 18-year-old white woman. Director and co-writer (with Andrew Lanham) Destin Daniel Cretton’s adaptation of a 2014 memoir by Bryan Stevenson is a humane and winning study of a subject with immense realworld significance. (A-III, PG- 13)
In the splendid comic whodunit “Knives Out,” a shrewd Southern detective (Daniel Craig) is hired by an anonymous client to investigate the death of a famous and wealthy crime novelist (Christopher Plummer). He seeks answers among the eccentric members of the deceased’s conflict-ridden family (Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson and Toni Collette, among others). He also enlists the help of the late author’s caring and sensible Latina nurse (Ana de Armas). Writer-director Rian Johnson’s richly entertaining ensemble homage to Agatha Christie has clever twist and turns, abundant humor and sly social commentary. Though strictly for grown-ups, it’s a brainy and satisfying movie. (AIII, PG-13)
“1917” is a gripping historical drama, set in the midst of World War I, in which two British soldiers (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) are dispatched across enemy territory to call off an attack by an officer (Benedict Cumberbatch) whose men are about to fall into a German trap. By turns harrowing and lyrically beautiful, and deeply humane throughout, director and co-writer Sam Mendes’ film displays both the horrors of trench combat and the endurance of fundamental decency and spiritual striving. It’s also luminous in its affirmation of the triumph of faith, broadly considered, over cynicism. (AIII, R)
In the heartwarming drama “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” a young man with Down syndrome (Zack Gottsagen) and no family to care for him escapes from a state institution and crosses paths with a down-on his- luck crab fisherman (Shia LaBeouf). Directors and co-writers Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz handle their Southern Gothic-tinged story, which also features Dakota Johnson as a sympathetic caregiver, with a light and dexterous touch. The result is a an aesthetically accomplished, implicitly pro-life movie that subtly but resolutely upholds the dignity of all. (AIII, PG-13)
“Us” is a top-notch but bloody horror fantasy from writer-director Jordan Peele. A childhood encounter with an exact double of herself proves to be the far-off prelude to a California woman (Lupita Nyong’o), her husband (Winston Duke) and kids (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex) being visited and terrorized by a malignant version of their family. There are frights aplenty in the struggle that follows as well as an allegory about economic inequality and perhaps slavery as well. Though clan closeness proves crucial to the outcome, the mayhem is too intense for a wide audience. (L, R)