With the arrival of October, 2019 shifts into full awards-season gear, when prestige projects from world-class auteurs and acclaimed debuts from promising newcomers become the theatrical (and streaming-service) norm. This month is highlighted by three superlative releases from directors Bong Joon-ho, James Gray, and Robert Eggers, the last of whom has bestowed audiences with a nightmare of unimpeachable insanity. There are still more potentially great films set to premiere in the coming months, including the imminent Nov. 1 arrival of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman (spoiler alert: it’s great). But to date, these are our choices for the best movies of the year.
The kindness of strangers is exploited for demented purposes in Greta, Neil Jordan’s playfully bonkers thriller about the trouble that befalls young Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz) after she finds a pocketbook on a New York subway and returns it to its owner, lonely Greta (Isabelle Huppert). Courtesy of that humane act, Frances –grieving the death of her beloved mom, as well as adjusting to her new Manhattan environs with the help of her wealthy roommate (Maika Monroe) – nets herself a surrogate mother figure. Their friendship, however, is eventually revealed to be predicted on a lie that turns the proceedings cockeyed. Jordan laces the film with erotic undercurrents but otherwise refuses to unduly embellish his material, instead content to keep it on steady ground even as it grows loopier. It’s Huppert who truly elevates this story about twisted maternal obsessiveness, her Greta a cunning predator who uses sophistication and solitary sorrowfulness to mask more devious desires. Sad, elegant and extremely unhinged, she’s a stalker to remember.
Toy Story 4
Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and the rest of Pixar’s animated toys are back in Toy Story 4, and though their return engagement may not be wholly necessary – considering 2011’s ideal franchise-capping Toy Story 3 – it proves a charming, funny and deceptively weighty saga about independence, purpose and loyalty to both loved ones and, just as importantly, to one’s self. Now the property of kindergarten-bound Bonnie, who’s disinterested in playing with him, Woody finds meaning in life by protecting her newest plaything: Forky (Tony Hale), a makeshift weirdo crafted from trash. Their ensuing road-trip odyssey leads Woody to Bo Peep (Annie Potts), now enjoying her freedom as a “lost toy.” Director Josh Cooley and writers Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom pepper their material with the usual barrage of sharp jokes, and the voice cast – including Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as a conjoined bunny and duck – is, as always, top-notch. Plus, it has Keanu Reeves stealing every scene he’s in as Duke Caboom, the greatest Canadian motorcycle daredevil to ever grace the silver screen.
The Art of Self Defense
Masculinity gets a beatdown in Riley Stearns’ The Art of Self-Defense, a scathing satire about the fragile and toxic variations of modern manliness. After nearly dying from an assault by helmeted motorcyclists, wimpy Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) finds empowerment at the karate dojo of Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), a martial-arts guru who helps him become that which he most fears. Stearns’ off-kilter script is defined by awkward conversations and absurd twists, and its droll approach to its material generates considerable black humor. As he becomes more devoted to the dojo, Casey is drawn deeper into a demented space marked by homoeroticism, sexism, and devious criminality. What he learns, ultimately, is that violence has the power to both transform and corrupt – a lesson that Eisenberg brings to amusingly wacko life via a performance in which Casey’s seething anger and resentment at his own powerlessness lies just beneath his placid surface, ready to erupt at a moment’s notice in a flurry of kicks and punches.