The Variety staff picks the funny, tragic, weird and wonderful (some all at once) moments from 2019 films. Spoilers to follow!
Beneath the visceral tension of the immersive action in “1917” lies a contemplative character study about the horrors of war as seen through the eyes of two young soldiers on an impossible mission. Palpable poignancy permeates director Sam Mendes’ picture, but it hits the hardest during the scene in the back of a military truck: Lance Cpl. Schofield (George MacKay) suffers a tremendous loss right before being picked up by friendly troops. As the other soldiers joke around, Schofield’s mind lingers on his trauma, represented by Thomas Newman’s restrained symphonic score. His grief-induced catatonia breaks when the truck gets stuck in a patch of mud. Schofield funnels his rage-fueled desperation into action, freeing the truck and earning the respect of the men. Not only is the gravitational pull of the scene a resounding metaphor for the Great War itself, but also points to how to survive sorrow.
— Courtney Howard
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”
Oftentimes, it’s the silences that make Mr. Rogers such a Zen-like figure in Marielle Heller’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Where others rush in to fill any gap in conversation, Mr. Rogers (or rather, Tom Hanks as the beloved children’s television host) will wait for a reply. When overtly criticized by cynical magazine journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), he’ll stop, absorb the information and calmly reply, “Thank you for that perspective.”
In real life, over the course of nearly 900 episodes, Rogers shared aspects of his philosophy with young viewers. Adults watched, too, but “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” didn’t seem to be speaking to them — that is the innovation of Heller’s approach: The film plays as an episode for grown-ups, as Rogers applies his teachings to Vogel.
The movie’s most powerful moment is a quiet one, as Rogers asks the hardened journalist to reconsider his resentment toward his father, challenging Vogel to take a minute of silence to “think about all the people who loved us into being.” And then the film proceeds to take a minute of silence — a daring choice for a studio feature.
For the first few seconds, as the camera cuts to other diners in the restaurant, audiences probably find themselves studying Vogel, waiting for some sign of catharsis. But as the scene stretches out and they realize that Heller plans to let the entire minute unfold, Rogers’ invitation extends to us as well. We can sit by stoically, or participate in the exercise.
The scene was inspired by something Rogers often did among small groups, and which he incorporated into the televised acceptance speech for his Lifetime Achievement Emmy telecast — only the producers limited him to 10 seconds. But in that minute of silence, Heller’s movie allows Rogers to work his magic on us as well.
— Peter Debruge
Set on the night before graduation for two no-fun high school seniors, Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein), who squandered the previous four years studiously avoiding parties and other extracurricular distractions, Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut delights in letting these two cut loose at last. That much seems familiar enough, making “Booksmart” feel like a female spin on movies like “Superbad” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” except that these two characters are unmistakably millennial in their wisecracking attitude and wiser-still belief in themselves.
They’re self-affirming young women who resist the pressure to become bimbo-bodied male fantasies, which feeds into the film’s funniest scene. After sampling an ambiguous hallucinogenic offered by a friend (“It’s like ayahuasca but Asian,” goes the explanation), the two spiral off into an unforgettable drug trip, transformed into any feminist’s nightmare: a pair of Barbie-esque dolls.
Wilde tapped ShadowMachine animation studio to render the surreal sequence in stop-motion, as the two teens — who sound raunchy enough in their own bodies — struggle to adapt to their impractical, unrealistically top-heavy proportions. Amy starts to feel herself up in front of the mirror, falling off the edge of the dresser at one point. “You have to put my heel in your hole!” Molly shouts, trying to rescue her friend from the absurdist situation. It’s over-the-top, but perfectly in keeping with so many of the movie’s themes about sisterhood and self-image.
— Peter Debruge
As Roger Ailes’ team gathers to discuss his strategy to combat sexual-abuse allegations, Ailes (John Lithgow) and his wife (Connie Britton) defend him saying it was the women who threw themselves at him. He is not to blame, Ailes says, as even his own lawyers look at him incredulously. The overweight and aging Fox News chief gets to his feet with difficulty and says he was not “always” like this, pointing to his legs. Lithgow manages to make the moment both funny and poignant as this abusive manipulator acknowledges that he is not attractive to women.
— Shalini Dore
In a particularly poignant exchange between Billi (Awkwafina) and her mother (Diana Lin) as they fall on the floor searching for an earring, Billi lets her mom know how lost she felt when they left China for the United States. She felt bereft as they left the extended family and settled in a foreign land. And even as her mother pretended it was all good, the girl could “see the fear” in her eyes and knew that all was not as wonderful as her parents pretended. For the mother, it was a moment to acknowledge her emotions while admitting that she was not the type to go around announcing her feelings.
— Shalini Dore
“Ford v Ferrari”
Matt Damon’s Carroll Shelby doesn’t rely on histrionics to get what he wants and needs, but instead he oozes confidence and charm, which, like a Jedi from “Star Wars,” tends to overpower anyone he is negotiating with. But the Jedi mind tricks don’t work on Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), who wants to shut down Shelby’s race-car development team. Shelby decides that Ford needs to experience what he and his team are working on, rather than just be told, and offers to give him a spin around the test track in the GT. Shelby’s idea of a spin involves high-speed turns and pushing the car to its limits. Ford is terrified — Letts steals the scene with his reactions — and as a very calm and determined Shelby spins the car to a theatrical stop, Ford’s crying, maybe laughing a little, but thrilled. The Shelby team has secured its future.
— Carole Horst
Early on in “The Irishman,” an elderly man named Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) delivers a brief monologue to an unseen audience. “Nowadays,” he begins, “the young people, they don’t know who Jimmy Hoffa was.”
Flash-forward nearly to the end of Martin Scorsese’s film, and Frank returns to that theme again. By this point, we’ve seen him kill dozens of people; we’ve seen him play an integral part in countless flash points of mafia lore and world history; we’ve seen all of his old friends and associates predecease him; and we’ve seen him work for, intimately befriend, and finally murder Hoffa, an act of soul-crushing betrayal that drives his beloved daughter to disown him. And this time, we see his audience: a hospice nurse half-listening to his rambling anecdotes as she makes her rounds. Predictably, she doesn’t know who Jimmy Hoffa was.
Frank may have lost, abandoned and alienated everyone who was ever important to him, but he was comforted all along by the intimation that at least he was doing something epochal, something lasting, something necessary. In this one epiphany, he realizes he was not. The earth-shaking events of which he was so proud to play a part will retreat further and further into the footnotes of history until no one even bothers to look them up. Nothing he accomplished matters. None of his sacrifices were worth it, and soon there won’t even be a nurse around to humor him. It’s what it is.
— Andrew Barker
Taika Waititi’s WWII-set film about Jojo, a German boy with an imaginary friend in the way of a cartoonish Adolf Hitler, has been called a satire and a comedy — and it is, in certain places, including sweet and funny scenes between Jojo and Elsa, the Jewish girl he discovers his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding in their basement. But there’s a moment when “Jojo Rabbit” crystalizes itself as heavy, heartbreaking drama — and that’s the scene in which Jojo discovers his mother, anti-Third Reich political dissident in the vein of Righteous Gentile, has been hanged in the town square. We watch as Jojo bounces through town, and then comes across the dangling shoes of a woman, and then her stockings, her dress and, ultimately, watch Jojo’s face as the realization that this was his mother that has been hanged lands on his face with a dull, devastating thud. It’s an unforgettable moment, a haunting one, and one that announces that while “Jojo Rabbit” might be satire, it’s one of the year’s most serious films.
— Malina Saval
Super rats are taking over Gotham City. It’s a grim world out there. Lawrence Sher’s cinematography captures the gritty. At the clown agency, Arthur Fleck paints his happy face, ready for work. He stands on the streets, holding a Closing Down sale. He’s targeted by a group of kids who steal his sign and beat him up. Fleck goes home. He just wants to be a standup comedian. His hero is Murray Franklin played by Robert De Niro.
Except Fleck has a mental illness that causes him to laugh. He’s on medication, but not enough in his eyes. His social worker tells him there isn’t much they can do for him due to lack of funds. It’s not going well for Fleck at all.
To top it off, he loses his job after things go wrong for him at work.
We feel for him. The sounds slowly start to get creepier. It all leads to the moment in which Fleck is riding the subway. Three men are on the subway. At first, they taunt a female passenger, but when Fleck starts laughing their attention turns to him.
One man sings an eerie line from Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns.” The screeching of the subway car, the tunnel lights whiz by. It’s not going to end well. They start beating him up. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score gets darker as Jeff Groth’s editing cuts from the men’s feet kicking Fleck as he laughs. Suddenly, a gun goes off, Fleck fights back. He kills one and then another. The third guy runs off, but Fleck follows him until he shoots him on the subway platform.
This is the transformation. Joker emerges. This is just the beginning. The tonal shift from Arthur Fleck to Joker. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is mesmerizing; you can’t look away. He delivers one of the most memorable performances and without a doubt, the best performance of the year.
— Jazz Tangcay
Greta Gerwig announces her bold intent for this year’s “Little Women” with its first scene: aspiring writer Jo (Saoirse Ronan) hesitates before stepping into the Weekly Volcano office to meet with skeptical Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts with exuberant facial hair), summoning all her courage to pitch a story written “by a friend.” She wilts a bit as he cut large swathes of her prose, brightening when he agrees to purchase it for a princely sum of $20. As he edits her story, Mr. Dashwood takes in the ink stains on Jo’s fingers, clearly sizing her up as the friend in question. Afterward, Jo exuberantly races through the street, hair flowing, vindicated as a writer. And with that, Gerwig’s “Little Women” is off to a kinetic start. The director, who also wrote the adaptation, upended the story structure of the beloved novel, jumping back and forth among the years and energizing Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel, originally published in 1868. Jo and Mr. Dashwood meet again in the movie, but that first scene really stands out, displaying Jo’s yearning ambition and a light comedic touch.
— Diane Garrett
If you were to put any scene from a marriage under a microscope, you’d spot the tiny fissures that can lead to cavernous fractures. Writer-director Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” speaks profoundly to major and minor heartbreaking moments in one couple’s union, capturing their rocky road to divorce. Though the film’s final act packs a series of potent emotional wallops, so too does an almost-innocuous scene that highlights their lost love: Charlie (Adam Driver) peruses cheery family photographs from days gone by as he waits for wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) to put their young son to bed. Randy Newman’s heartrending, romantic score plays, reflecting the lost, idealized version of their union. As the pair then descend the staircase, she stumbles, making a wisecrack about drinking to lighten the awkward mood. It’s a tender moment that’s later weaponized by bickering attorneys.
— Courtney Howard
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”
Screen heroes rarely look cooler than stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), when he sets foot in the Spahn Movie Ranch, wearing a pair of dusty moccasins and the shiny aviators he’d soon remove to take a good look at the members of the Manson family. In the sequence involving a derelict farmhouse (where, Booth suspects, “the hippies” hold ranch owner George Spahn captive), its grounds infested with unfriendly sneers and gazes and a horseback riding excursion led by the murderous Tex Watson, Quentin Tarantino meticulously orchestrates a three-pronged labyrinth of tension that could be out of a Western or post-apocalyptic zombie pic. Reigning over the scene (aided by sharp humor and a chilling score) is Pitt’s nonchalant stance. Refusing to be held hostage by the cult, Booth openly mocks and intimidates the lot, an attitude that astutely foreshadows his steadfast presence in the finale when he casually dismisses and disarms the devil.
— Tomris Laffly
There are so many delicious, shocking moments in Bong Joon Ho’s dark comedy about class struggle it’s difficult to pick just one. But there is a sequence fairly early on that really sets the wheels in motion, balancing the tone between suspense and comedy. The Kim family has begun to infiltrate the wealthy Park family, having installed the son, daughter and father in jobs at the Park household. All that’s left is to get rid of the housekeeper so that the Kim matriarch can take the position. As the father, Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) runs errands with the rich and naïve Park Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong), we see how he begins to plant the seeds of doubt — showing her a photo of the housekeeper at the doctor and claiming she has been diagnosed with active tuberculosis (when she’s actually there because the Kim family has been secretly aggravating her peach allergy). This is intercut with scenes of Ki-taek’s son (Choi Woo-shik) coaching his father on how to deliver the news, without overacting. It’s the right blend of hilarious and horrifying as you watch them take down the innocent housekeeper even as you can’t help but root for them.
— Jenelle Riley
In a film full of gut-wrenching moments, one of the most emotional comes when Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser), the security guard who went from hero to suspect in the bombing at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, begins to fight back. One of the first steps involves a press conference, in which his kind and gentle mother, Bobi (Kathy Bates), is forced into the spotlight. Her voice quaking, her eyes brimming with tears, she tells the gathered press that her son is innocent. She’s clearly uncomfortable with public speaking, but the power of a mother’s love outweighs her fears. As she steps off the stage, her son thanks her, knowing how hard it was and feeling guilty for pulling her into this.
— Jenelle Riley
“The Two Popes”
Who knew a film about two men of God discussing philosophy, theology and politics could be so funny? In Anthony McCarten’s script, based on his play “The Pope,” the audience is taken into the secret conversations between the conservative Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and the more modern Cardinal Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce). While the two know each other, they competed for the title years earlier, their first real meeting comes when Benedict summons Francis to the papal summer estate in Italy. Bergoglio thinks he is there to get authorization to retire but unbeknownst to anyone, Benedict is about to do the unthinkable and step down. The differences between the humorless Benedict and the outgoing Bergoglio are summed up perfectly as Benedict enters the room and, hearing Bergoglio humming, asks what hymn it is. “Abba,” Bergoglio says with a sly smile.
— Jenelle Riley