The Spool, in its current form, has effectively survived its first year of operation, and what a year it’s been. Transitioning from a comedy/mixology podcast to something bigger, more sprawling, and more serious-minded hasn’t been easy, but the fact that we made it happen is no small feat. The we in that last sentence is very important; a huge thanks to all the staffers, editors, and contributors who’ve made this first year possible. My gratitude knows no bounds.
It helped, of course, that 2019 provided plenty of meat for us to chew on. While the summer had its fair share of doldrums (bland Disney remakes, comedies that fell flat on their face), the surrounding seasons bloomed with standouts from film legends and exciting newcomers alike from all around the world. The accessibility and high profile of streaming services like Netflix are putting awards-caliber films in front of more eyeballs than ever before (albeit at the potential cost of the cinema experience itself), and conversations rage on about whether blockbuster tentpoles are true cinema. But whatever form the medium takes in the ensuing years, we’re excited about the state of the art form as it sits now.
Which brings us to our end-of-year best-of list, a principle I bristled against for a while. I’ll level with you, I hate rankings. Or, more accurately, I hate doing rankings. It’s like picking a favorite child: sure, you have one, but you’re not about to admit that to anyone out loud, are you?
It’s in that spirit that The Spool presents a breakdown of our top 25 movies of 2019 in no particular order. No rankings, no hierarchies, just a sampler platter of the films we think represent the best of the year. Below, you’ll find tales of calcified love, the vagaries of greed, and the transformative power of kindness. Hopefully, you’ll take the time to check them all out. [Clint Worthington, editor-in-chief]
Honorable Mentions: Amazing Grace, Apollo 11, Ash is Purest White, Atlantics, Bacurau, Blinded by the Light, Booksmart, The Nightingale, Ready or Not, Rolling Thunder Revue, Starfish, The Souvenir, Synonyms, Tigers Are Not Afraid, Toy Story 4.
In some respects, it’s easy to dismiss something as unsubtle, mawkish, and shaggy as James Gray‘s Ad Astra. The tale of a stoic astronaut (Brad Pitt) tasked with reconnecting with his father (Tommy Lee Jones), a scientist gone mad on the edges of the solar system, Gray’s film can be easily pigeonholed as “Apocalypse Now for white boys with daddy issues.” But once you get past Gray’s single-mindedness (and occasionally on-the-nose dialogue), Ad Astra opens up into a more poignant tale of fathers and sons, the utility of emotion, and the search for God in an uncertain universe. Gray’s films have long tackled with intricacies of the sublime — see also The Lost City of Z — but Ad Astra is a staggeringly earnest quest through the black abyss of space, only to discover new facets of yourself. [Clint Worthington]
Read Matt Cipolla’s full review of Ad Astra here.
It sounds like a workplace comedy: a Chinese billionaire buys a defunct GM plant in Ohio. He repurposes it for his glassmaking company, uproots some perennial employees from the new branch, and hires unemployed locals to even things out. It is a workplace comedy, though—at least in part. Steven Bognar & Julia Reichert’s documentary draws a Venn diagram between capitalism and communism and, in the process, looks at workers’ attempts to cope with the all-powerful threat of modernization. Their idealism, their growing insecurities, their begrudging introspection—they come together to replace whatever normalcy they’ve come to expect. What American Factory gives us is a surprisingly hopeful look at the individuals that make up any collective, sans condescension of either side. [Matt Cipolla]
Read Clint Worthington’s full review of American Factory here.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
One year after her superb breakout Can You Ever Forgive Me? director Marielle Heller returns with another off-beat, inventive biopic. This time around, her misanthropic subject is Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a workaholic Esquire writer who finds himself in the orbit of the one-and-only Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks). It seems we’re just scratching the surface of Fred’s legacy, as A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood makes for a perfect companion piece to Morgan Neville’s recent Won’t You Be My Neighbor? That’s not to say the film doesn’t stand on its own too: featuring sequences in which Llyod tumbles into Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Heller captures the genuine warmth – and weirdness – that Rogers exuded. [Jonah Koslofsky]
Read Clint Worthington’s full review of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood here.
There was no shortage of films about the gory realities and realizations of aging this year, but few reached the lucidity of critic-turned-filmmaker Kent Jones‘ feature debut, Diane. A piercing character study whose expression of time borders on metaphysical, Diane is shot with uncharacteristic zen – a refraction of its main character’s attempts to grasp the meaning in her own life. Starring treasured character actor Mary Kay Place, the film traces her undulating routine in the twilight of her life as she reminisces with friends, reflects on the state of her family relationships, and lends a repeated hand to the decreasing group of people who cherish her warmth. It never forces its drama, but Diane’s sense of melancholy creeps, making its home in the places of greatest doubt. [Michael Snydel]
Dolemite Is My Name
Movies about movies are a dime a dozen, and movies about bad movies – or worse, bad filmmakers – punch down far too much for my taste (see The Disaster Artist). But Craig Brewer‘s Dolemite Is My Name, the winsome biopic of blaxploitation comedy star (and Godfather of Rap) Rudy Ray Moore, feels celebratory, as its central figure hustles his way to stardom on little more than charisma and an all-encompassing need to be seen. What’s more, it carves out a special place for an underappreciated time in the history of black outsider art, crackling with giddy, lets-put-on-a-show energy. Fittingly for the screenwriters of Ed Wood, Dolemite beams affectionately at its misfit cast of characters, especially Eddie Murphy as Moore, a hell-for-leather comeback turn that smartly avoids impersonation, simply channeling his subject’s exuberant charm through Murphy’s unique comic talents. It’s not the most intellectually rich film this year, but it’s got “titties, funny, and kung fu”, and god damn if it isn’t a blast. [Clint Worthington]
Read Clint Worthington’s full review of Dolemite Is My Name here.
I’m not sure Nai Nai (as played to perfection by Zhao Shuzhen) ever believes her family’s “good lie.” As her children and grandchildren, including her granddaughter Billi (Awkwafina) assemble to celebrate an impromptu wedding – and say goodbye to their beloved matriarch, who is suffering from lung cancer while being told that everything is fine – Nai Nai remains a vibrant presence, not a person who seems easy to deceive. Lulu Wang’s thoughtful meditation on cultural attitudes towards death is a rare gem, a small, human story that weaves together comedy and drama with apparent ease. What does holding onto one’s traditions actually look like? Wang’s deeply empathetic exploration should not be missed. [Jonah Koslofsky]
Read Clint Worthington’s review of The Farewell here.
Don’t let the question mark in the title fool you. Penny Lane’s documentary on The Satanic Temple doesn’t question its own beliefs. It doesn’t confront the beliefs of its subjects, their mission statements, or their humanity. And why should it? Just as The Satanic Temple has nothing to do with Satan, Lane’s film is much more about secular humanism and its oppression in the face of Western culture and its religious singularity. There’s a playfulness here that never loses track of its humor regardless of gender, race, or creed. This gives a sense of humanity that starts as a joke and shows itself to be a much more probing look at prejudice—a modern-day witch hunt between the Bible and the Constitution. [Matt Cipolla]
Read Matt Cipolla’s capsule review of Hail Satan? here.
Alex Ross Perry seemed to push an actor as far as humanly possible when he directed Elisabeth Moss in 2015’s criminally underseen Queen of Earth, but she had even more blood, sweat, and tears to give him in Her Smell. Playing a self-destructive, Courtney Love-like musician, Moss is both pitiful and defiantly unlikable, taunting, threatening and bending her friends and bandmates to her will, until one day she can’t anymore. Shot in light and at angles often realistically unkind to her face and body, Moss takes what could be a cliched story of darkness before the dawn and turns it into something alternately frightening, exhilarating, and moving. [Gena Radcliffe]
Read Rick Kelley’s personal essay on Her Smell here.
High Flying Bird
Steven Soderbergh heists again! High Flying Bird, written by Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight) and shot on an iPhone 8, zips through its 91-minute runtime with the same confidence that propelled the director’s Ocean’s trilogy and the ever-underrated Logan Lucky. But instead of pulling one over on the powers behind a casino or racetrack, the targets here are NBA owners. This is the story of the game on top of the game, tracking sports agent Ray Burke’s (André Holland) maneuvers against the National Basketball Association as he attempts to put control back in the hands of the players – and make a spare penny in the process. Cheekily cutting away from any actual basketball whenever the sport threatens to make an appearance, High Flying Bird is the movie Moneyball should’ve been – one sure to stand the test of time. [Jonah Koslofsky]
Read Scout Tafoya’s full review of High Flying Bird here.
A movie like Hustlers is long overdue. After all, raucous “glorifications” of criminal activities have long belonged to men, and only men. But writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s story of strippers stealing from the suits who objectify them dares to put a Scorsese-esque narrative in the hands of those so often denied. Is there any frame in 2019 more memorable than J-Lo sliding down that stripper pole? Instead of leering at its subjects, Hustlers humanizes Destiny (Constance Wu) and her mentor/mother figure Ramona (Jennifer Lopez). And it’s not afraid to have a little fun along the way, too. [Jonah Koslofsky]
Read Matt Cipolla’s full review of Hustlers here.
In a year that saw Martin Scorsese in the cross-hairs of the Film Discourse for his remarks about Marvel movies and blockbuster cinema turning art into theme park rides, at least he brought the goods to back up his claims. A three-and-a-half-hour tale of crime, memory, and a secret history of 20th-century America, The Irishman is a stiff rebuke to the claim that Scorsese does nothing but make samey mob movies. Sure, there are mobbed-up teamsters and sudden bursts of violence, and Bobby De Niro shares screen time with Al Pacino and Joe Pesci (all three turning in beautiful work). But more than that, The Irishman is a story of loss, regret, and the way time and age and passivity can rob you of everything — your health, your friends, your family — even if you do all that you’re asked. [Clint Worthington]
Read Jonah Koslofsky’s full review of The Irishman here.
With remakes of The Lion King, Aladdin, and The Addams Family this year comes the usual almost-a-cliche-itself complaint that Hollywood has run out of ideas. So let us give all the praise to Knives Out, a murder mystery-comedy so beautifully precise it’s almost like watching a Rube Goldberg contraption. Rian Johnson doesn’t leave a single thread hanging or a plot hole unfilled — even a throwaway line about a character’s real first name fits perfectly into a third act twist. While Jamie Lee Curtis is the perfect dash of salt to Ana de Armas’ sweetness, it’s Daniel Craig’s show, speaking in a thick, impenetrable Southern accent (though where in the South is anyone’s guess), and all but demanding that a half-dozen more movies be made in which he solves crimes while looking like he’s having the time of his life. [Gena Radcliffe]
Read Matt Cipolla’s capsule review of Knives Out here.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
As Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) and Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) ride two-up on a skateboard through the streets, they appear to be on the peripheries. The thing, though, is that they aren’t living on the sidelines; they’re living in a collapse in the centerfold, one where the seers accomplish more than the doers. The need to forge a statement in our world borders on the pathological, but Joe Talbot’s feature debut goes a bit beyond that. The Last Black Man In San Francisco isn’t only about systematic racism or the world that treats life itself as a commodity. Rather, it’s about true compassion in a land of performative politeness. This is a watery tableau of great care and even greater ambition, often balancing such with the sort of magical realism-inspired simplicity that not so much gives reprieve to the disenfranchised, but frees them of such a label. [Matt Cipolla]
I don’t take NyQuil because it gives me insanely vivid dreams that leave me disoriented and out of sorts upon waking. Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse is like taking a big old swig of giant Q (original, the worst flavor). Absolutely dedicated to maintaining a sense of unsettling weirdness that defies you to go with it or piss off, it boasts a career-best performance from Willem Dafoe, who’s both terrifying and pathetic. He alternately demands respect and begs for approval from Robert Pattinson, as both of them are drawn intractably towards the light they’ve been tasked with protecting. Bleak, baffling, creepy, and surprisingly hilarious at times, you won’t likely see anything like The Lighthouse again. [Gena Radcliffe]
Read Clint Worthington’s full review of The Lighthouse here.
It’s been 150 years since Louisa May Alcott’s novel first hit shelves, and since then seven film adaptations have graced the screen. Making an eighth would seem like a tall order, sure, but multi-hyphenate Greta Gerwig is nothing if not impassioned with the material. In fact, she’s so much so that she’s crafted a story of terminal velocity, one where seasons turn to months and months into minutes, capturing its characters against a tireless zoetrope of depth and luminance. Is it hard to keep track of it at times? Maybe, and that’s precisely the point. Life comes at the March sisters with no intention of stopping. The movie comes back at it with an even greater passion, retelling the present as it unfolds. There’s no denying its moral core here. There’s also no denying just how excited Gerwig’s movie is to help push it forward. [Matt Cipolla]
Read Clint Worthington’s full review of Little Women here.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Have we reached the breaking point on the long take? Bi Gan’s half-remembered reverie is firmly an argument in favor of that much-ballyhooed gimmick. Like his previous film’s climactic long take around a purgatorial land, it’s impossible to talk about the film without discussing the 59 minute 3-D interlude – but there’s a different tone to the discussion. Bi and cinematographers David Chizallet, Jingsong Dong, and Hung-i Yao don’t feel like micromanagers wielding the camera as a gambit to be remembered throughout history. Rather, it’s yet another delivery method to be swept up into the film’s potent suggestion and blunt trickery. Even at its most outwardly ostentatious, Long Day’s Journey Into Night never feels like it’s playing a game of illusion; the only thing to wrap up in is the banal spectacle. [Michael Snydel]
Read Matt Cipolla’s full review of Long Day’s Journey Into Night here.
Much discussion has been had about whether Marriage Story watchers are “Team Charlie” or “Team Nicole” — whether the film paints Charlie as a misogynist fuckboi who doesn’t even realize how manipulative he is, or whether Nicole purposefully puts Charlie through hell by dragging them through an expensive, emotionally draining divorce process. But if Noah Baumbach‘s semi-autobiographical tale of the end of a marriage works on any level, it’s in its deeply empathetic look at the virtues and flaws of both parties involved. Sure, more screen time is spent on Charlie’s woes, Adam Driver pulling in career-best work as a man frustrated that chickens were coming home to roost that he didn’t even know he had. But Scarlett Johansson‘s vulnerability and resolve shine through as a woman who finally wants “a piece of Earth that’s [hers].” Toss in a bevy of stellar character actors (Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta) to deliver Baumbach’s slyly lyrical dialogue, and a pair of Sondheim cuts that break the heart, and you’ve got a beautiful tale of the agony of conscious uncoupling. [Clint Worthington]
Read Sean Price’s full review of Marriage Story here.
Ari Aster makes movies that linger in the back of your mind, whether you want them to or not. Charlie’s strange little clicking sound in Hereditary has been replaced by the chorus of primal moans during a fertility ritual in Midsommar, cult horror that has the audacity to show its most gruesome moments in broad daylight. Dani (Florence Pugh), burdened with a callow boyfriend who insists on picking at the grief over her dead family like an annoying scab, finds unexpected solace and empathy in a commune full of people who view her largely as a means to an end. Does she eventually understand what she’s gotten herself into? Maybe, but it’s not like she has anywhere else to go, and it doesn’t get any bleaker than that. [Gena Radcliffe]
Read Clint Worthington’s full review of Midsommar here.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Can Quentin Tarantino make anything that lives up to his earlier work? In a year full of aging masters reckoning with their own obsolescence (look no further than Pain and Glory and The Irishman, two of our other top picks for the year), Once Upon a Time In… Hollywood presents the most outlandish version of this story. But for a film that concludes with a flamethrower and some semi-healthy historical revisionism, OUATIH is oddly restrained for its first two hours. When was the last time this auteur really slowed down, and let us simply hang out with his creations? It helps that Tarantino’s brought along a stacked cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie all deliver exceptional performances as figures sitting along opposite ends of the Hollywood generation gap. Who knows how many more features Tarantino has left in him — here’s hoping whatever he makes next measure up to the level of his latest. [Jonah Koslofsky]
Read Clint Worthington’s full review of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood here.
Pain and Glory
Sometimes all it takes is looking at a director through new eyes. As the memorable early exchange goes in Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film – an autofiction about an ailing director struggling to recover his joie de vivre while drifting through his past loves and losses – so too is the film itself a reconfiguration of the master director’s career pet themes from the roots of queer desire to the narcotic ache of unfulfilled love. Starring Antonio Banderas in a supremely controlled turn that bucks any method acting pyrotechnics, Pain and Glory is a testament to not only time’s ability to warp memory, but the accumulating shards of self that are revealed in that illusion. Surrounded by a spectacular supporting cast including Asier Etxeandia, Leonardo Sbaraglia, and a small but crucially prickly role by Penélope Cruz, Almodóvar’s film follows an atypically leisurely slice-of-life structure, but it’s anything but minor. Just as the film slowly reveals the magnitude of its tiny moments, so too does the director as well unveil himself as a mastermind of a much grander plot. [Michael Snydel]
Bong Joon-ho‘s long-overdue arrival to the American mainstream comes not through post-apocalyptic train revolutions (Snowpiercer), or quirky tales of runaway super-pigs (Okja), but a clockwork tale of class and deception that ranks among the master’s best works. A poor family (led by patriarch Song Kang-ho) cons its way into the service of a wealthy clan at the top of the hill. But just when the plot is working far too well, they learn that they’re not the only ones siphoning off the largesse of the rich, leading to a climactic plot over who gets to be stepped on with a gilded bootheel. Bong’s whiplash of tones is never more delightfully disarming than it is here, and the impeccable production design of the Parks’ house makes for one of this year’s most evocative locations. It’s not subtle, by any means (“This is so metaphorical!”, one character repeatedly remarks), but who cares? With Director Bong, the lack of subtlety is the point. [Clint Worthington]
Read Clint Worthington’s full review of Parasite here.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
“How do you know when it’s finished?” one woman says. The other turns to her, meets her eyes, and softly declares, “You stop.” But while the romance between Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) grows with the portrait of the latter, it almost feels as if their relationship will never end. The concept of a couple predestined to come apart may sound fatalistic, but Céline Sciamma’s latest is an incredible embrace of the female gaze, following its pair through a past told exactly as it’s remembered. No one clogging the peripheries; no patriarchy tracking their every move. They simply get to exist in their fire-and-water senses, the closest irascibilities misting through the surrounding nature and the spaces they find themselves in. This relationship may have been commissioned from the start, but the intimacy finds a way and never subsides. [Matt Cipolla]
Read Matt Cipolla’s full review of Portrait of a Lady on Fire here.
German filmmaker Christian Petzold’s previous films have long revolved around single-blind moral dilemmas – situations where a character at first gradually but rapidly becomes entangled in the tendrils of their past. A transposition of a 1940s Nazi Germany-set novel to a timeless but fascist-occupied Paris, Transit takes a familiar genre template of mistaken identity, but there’s no shared experience between the characters other than their everyday turbulence. Key information is withheld, but there is no possibility of a great revelation. Rather, their lives are defined by ethereal instability as they wait in a series of Kafkaesque lines for the chance to move on, whatever that may mean. But until then, they’re stuck glimpsing ghosts just around the corner and surviving day by day. [Michael Snydel]
Read Clint Worthington’s full review of Transit here.
Howard Ratner, Adam Sandler’s unctuous time bomb of a human being, begins the Safdie brothers’ latest odyssey deep in the hole. From his first moments onscreen following a graphic mining expedition, Howard’s head is on a swivel, prowling through New York City, making his rounds at fellow jewelers and bookies and making transactions that put his neck right back in line for the guillotine. Chaos has long been a constant in the Safdies’ films, but the canvas has rarely been so large and the stakes have never felt so permanently suspended. Instead of the linear cataclysms of their past films, Uncut Gems is defined by its multiplicities – the possibility that a dozen situations could implode at any moment. And unlike their past anti-heroes, Howard doesn’t dream of peace; he’s terrified of it. He’s pure momentum, all flop sweat fated to run through this routine of self-destruction until he reaches an impassable barrier. [Michael Snydel]
Read Matt Cipolla’s full review of Uncut Gems here.
According to the mythos of Jordan Peele’s Us, there’s a sort of upside-down world where each of us has a twin, a broken toy Opposite Day version mimicking us and experiencing the inverse of what we experience. We eat, they starve, we feel pleasure, they feel pain. It’s a silly concept that ends up being one of the creepiest movies of 2019. Incorporating the Beach Boys, amusement parks, and Hands Across America into the plot, it’s a reflection of American culture, and the world underneath it that we refuse to acknowledge. When Lupita Nyong’o‘s Red speaks about being one of the “Tethered,” tears stream down her cheeks. She’s suffered for so long among the unseen, and now she’s here and ready to take what belongs to her, and whether anyone’s ready to give it up is of no consequence to her. [Gena Radcliffe]
Read Clint Worthington’s full review of Us here.