Peter Jackson’s fond farewell to Middle-earth is the standard-bearer for epic-fantasy filmmaking and the best work in the director’s lauded filmography. The Return of the King is a reasonably faithful adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s final Lord of the Rings (LOTR) novel of the same name. Make no mistake: Jackson’s sign-off is indulgent, but with more than nine hours of film leading up to it, its sentimentality is earned.
Four years before the Zodiac Killer befuddled California police in David Fincher’s Zodiac, co-writer and director Bong Joon-ho brought South Korea’s first serial killer to the screen in 2003 with Memories of Murder. Bong was building a storied career in his native Korea before the director was formally introduced in the United States with Snowpiercer (2013), Okja (2017), and Parasite (2019). Memories of Murder, only his second feature film, is an instant classic.
Knives Out is an intricately spun whodunit starring an eccentric sleuth that would tickle the likes of Dame Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Daniel Craig and Ana de Armas star as super detective Benoit Blanc and nurse Marta, respectively. Marta is an unwilling, amateur John Watson to Craig’s country-fried Sherlock Holmes to delightful effect.
In May, Parasite unanimously and deservedly took home the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. The 2019 Palme d’Or winner, a tour de force from writer-director Bong Joon-ho, could rightfully find itself in the conversation for the top prize at 92nd Academy Awards. Although no foreign-language film has ever won Best Picture and no South Korean film has ever been nominated in any category, Parasite would be worthy of the historical distinction.
Writer-director James Gray follows up his criminally-underrated The Lost City of Z with a film that may just top it. Ad Astra sends Brad Pitt hurtling through space, interspersing peerless set pieces with character study, introspection, and societal commentary. No 2019 film has aspired to such awe-inspiring heights. No film in years has aspired to such heights and surpassed them.
If aliens came to Earth demanding to see the art that best represents us as a species, I would advocate for The Shawshank Redemption as the single film that embodies everything it is to be human. 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption is a tale of hope and despair, purity and corruption, and, perhaps most of all, victory and defeat.
Pulp Fiction defined careers, a genre, and an era. With a plot that balanced three intertwining narratives more successfully than any film before or since, its praise is well warranted. Director Quentin Tarantino broke onto the film scene with 1992’s Reservoir Dogs, but Pulp Fiction, released two years later, got Hollywood’s attention like a shot of adrenaline to the heart.
Eleven years after Fargo, the first film Joel and Ethan Coen should’ve been awarded an Oscar for, the Coen brothers finally took home the Academy’s top prize with No Country for Old Men. An old Hollywood adage surmises that directors never win Best Picture for their best work, but the Coen brothers certainly did.
The Silence of the Lambs is based on a best-selling novel, its casting department hit two home runs with Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, and it found a director whose career was on the upswing. The film had every reason to succeed, and it did. Still, few movies work on this level, and fewer yet are rewarded for their efforts.
There Will Be Blood, the fifth film by writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, represents a career turn that few others are capable of. Anderson’s first four films, Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love were the work of an efficient, skilled filmmaker. Magnolia and Boogie Nights, in particular, suggested that Anderson may have a loftier vision than originally thought. With more experience under his belt, Anderson wrote There Will Be Blood. Three feature-length films later, There Will Be Blood is still Anderson’s defining masterpiece; it may remain that way for some time to come.