We saw the monumental returns of Joe Pesci and Aretha Franklin this year. We took an exhilarating ride around the track, and two filmmakers who’ve been around the track a time or two proved they still have what it takes creatively to go full throttle.

"Little Women"

Director Greta Gerwig crafted a gorgeous and lyrical adaptation of the classic Louisa May Alcott novel. Rather than feel like a classic though, the film crackled with a 21st-century sense of energy and agency. With a perfect ensemble of actresses playing the titular women, Alcott’s unbridled sense of spirit prevailed.

"Marriage Story"

Even though divorce is the subject matter, we reveled in the chemistry of two actors giving the performances of their careers. Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver starred as a disentangling couple in writer-director Noah Baumbach’s superb film. It was made masterful too for its nuance. Not a film about hate, "Marriage Story" hung onto love among the ruins.

"Ford v Ferrari"

I’d heard this was a good film, I wasn’t prepared for just how good. Thoroughly entertaining, amid pools of pathos, the drive between Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to develop a revolutionary Ford race car was intoxicating. Then it really shifted into gear with a final lap that wisely resisted crowd-pleasing neatness.

"For Sama"

I saw this documentary this summer and quickly proclaimed it the best documentary I’d ever seen. I’m relieved that half a year later, I still don’t find my words hyperbolic. "For Sama" was made by Syrian filmmaker Waad al-Kateeb and Edward Watts (along with my WGBH colleagues at FRONTLINE) about her life inside Aleppo during five years of relentless military attacks. It is horrific, shocking and deeply personal. It’s imperative viewing for the perspective it provides in the heart of conflict. And it’s nearly incomprehensible how al-Kateeb had the presence of skill to craft the film as bombs rained down, let alone marshal the courage it took to risk her life in getting both her family and her footage out of Syria for the world to see.

"Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood"

This was Quentin Tarantino’s gorgeous ode to Hollywood…until it wasn’t. The film whirled around a freer, more pure moment in California’s dreamland before the Manson murders shredded the halcyon curtain. "Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood" was the cinematic equivalent of cruising around in a big, old convertible with the top down and basking in the golden sun…until the deep, dark of nightfall.

"The Irishman"

Once upon a time…in Martin Scorsese’s universe, we find "The Irishman," the film the legendary director made after being indulged with hefty Netflix resources. There was a lot of groaning about the movie’s 3.5-hour length, but it’s fully absorbing as it traces the rise of Irishman Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) from truck driver to hitman to Jimmy Hoffa confidant. DeNiro is masterful…almost as much as Joe Pesci who made you realize his long absence from the screen was a criminal enterprise of its own.

"The Farewell"

It was a family affair when Billi (Awkwafina) learned that her grandmother had cancer and everyone returned home to China. Only, observing Chinese custom, no one planned to tell Nai-Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) she only had weeks to live. Billed as a “tale based on an actual lie,” perhaps no film this year better captured the intricacies of family dynamics (and all the incumbent ego, hilarity, and frailty) as "The Farewell."

"Amazing Grace"

Finally. In 1972 Aretha Franklin recorded her gospel album, Amazing Grace, at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Sydney Pollack captured the sessions on film, but for myriad reasons ranging from the technical to Franklin’s reservations, the footage never saw the light of day until this year. It was glorious. And on the big screen with concert sound, we had a front-row seat as Franklin lost herself in the music and the palpable heat of the night.

"The Lighthouse"

This totally demented story about two lighthouse keepers (Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson) left to contend with the elements, and each other, on a rugged New England island in the 1890s was just delicious. "The Lighthouse" was a film steeped in craft, from director Robert Eggers’ visual allusions to the mined-from-real-life-diaries screenplay, to Dafoe and Pattinson who has never been better.


For all the nerds out there, this was your comedy and it was a riotous one. It wasn’t until graduation eve when two academic all-stars (Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever) realized that they’d squandered their high school years studying at the expense of fun. Suddenly their all-nighters and cramming were devoted to all manner of recreational deviance. Expertly directed and paced by Olivia Wilde, "Booksmart" excelled for its originality and laugh-out-loud hilarity. Grade: A+.