December 2019 has proven a controversial time for cinema with the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker on December 20, the same day as Tom Hooper’s feverish daydream Cats. While The Rise of Skywalker has been negatively reviewed by critics, casual fans seem to love it, and it brought Disney strong enough box office numbers that the future of Star Wars isn’t in jeopardy.
Cats, on the other hand, is a nightmarish and unnecessary celebration of kitsch. One reviewer for NPR called Cats the “dirty litter box of the soul.” Another for The Wrap called it a “jarring fever dream of a spectacle” that “is like something that escaped from Dr. Moreau’s creature laboratory instead of a poet’s and a composer’s feline (uni)verse.”
Over on review-aggregator website Metacritic, The Rise of Skywalker is rated at 54 percent and Cats is at a meager 32 percent, so put together they only reach 86 percent.
For lovers of quality cinema, fret not. Here are eight other movies released in 2019 better than both Cats and The Rise of Skywalker put together.
8. Pain and Glory — 88 percent
Filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar’s latest is a meditative reflection on a fictional fillmmaker’s life as we explore his most formative moments at every stage. Antonio Banderas delivers a career-best performance as Salvador Mallo in the twilight of his life.
Amidst failing health and an almost nonexistent career, Mallo reconnects with figures from his past and reflects on the meaning of life, art, and pain in a film that Time called the best of the year.
The Farewell — 89 percent
Written and directed by Lulu Wang, The Farewell is a semi-autobiographical story about a family reeling from the revelation that the grandmother has cancer and all the implications of their choice to not tell “Nai Nai” (paternal grandmother) at all.
Awkwafina is a revelation as the protagonist Billi, a millennial living in New York City who’s just a tad estranged from her Chinese family. Awkwafina delivers a more serious and tender performance than we’re used to seeing from the actress/rapper, and her innate charm elevates this film to excellent places.
Uncut Gems — 89 percent
More exhilarating that Star Wars, and more maniacal than Cats, Uncut Gems is a nightmarish masterpiece from the Safdie brothers (Josh and Benny) starring Adam Sandler in his best performance to date.
Set in 2012 mostly on a single block of midtown Manhattan known as the Diamond District, Uncut Gems turns Sandler into a flashy seller of diamond-encrusted Furbies and fake Rolexes named Howard. He’s also painfully addicted to sports betting, and in way over his head with a dangerous bookie. When Howard gets his hands on a rare black opal and convinces Kevin Garnett (played by the actual NBA legend) to buy it he sees a way out of debt. — Jake Kleinman
Little Women — 91 percent
Sneaking into the conversation with a Christmas Day release, Little Women is a bright light in the slog of December releases. The film follows the lives of the March sisters in 1860s New England shortly after the end of the American Civil War, all based on the 1868 novel of the same name by Louisa May Alcott. It’s written and directed by Greta Gerwig, perhaps best known for her solo writing-directing debut in the widely loved Lady Bird.
By all accounts, Little Women is light, wise, thoughtful, complex and tender — and it just might be the must-see movie of the year.
Marriage Story — 93 percent
Noah Baumbach — the writer and director behind Frances Ha, Squid and the Whale, and The Meyerwitz Stories — has created a masterpiece with Marriage Story, a Netflix exclusive film with career-best performances from Adam Driver and Scarlet Johansson as a young couple going through a divorce. Charlie (Driver) is a famous New York City-based theater director, and Nicole (Johansson) is an actress who fears her breakout role in a teen movie years ago may have been her peak. Their young son complicates matters, as does Nicole’s recent move back to Los Angeles.
Marriage Story delves into the nitty gritty of divorce court and all the emotional trauma that comes with it, but at no point is anybody painted as the villain (except for maybe Laura Dern as a wickedly powerful L.A. divorce lawyer). This couple still loves each other, but sometimes that’s not enough.
The Irishman — 94 percent
Martin Scorsese might be an old curmudgeon who hates Marvel movies (or at the very least doesn’t think they’re “cinema”), but he still knows how to make a damn good mobster movie. The same writer-director behind the likes of Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Departed, Scorsese created The Irishman exclusively for Netflix.
The impeccable Robert De Niro stars as Frank Sheeran, a real-life truck driver from the 1950s who became involved in Russell Bufalino’s Pennsylvania crime family as a hit man before connecting with Jimmy Hoffa, a leader of the Teamsters union with ties to organized crime. The Irishman spans decades in a sprawling epic that explores the psychology behind organized crime and the people who participate in it. There are also excellent performances all around.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire — 95 percent
This French historical drama from director Céline Sciamma recounts the love affair between a French aristocrat in the late 18th century and the painter commissioned to paint her portrait. These two star-crossed lovers have their fleeting moment of passion at a time when homosexuality was mostly forbidden, but it’s an endlessly relatable set-up for a love story.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire has earned universal acclaim from critics thanks to its intense, well-acted story that recognizes the conflict between a person’s inner and outer lives.
Parasite — 96 percent
Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite is a must-see. This black comedy/thriller is an excellent piece of anti-capitalist satire as members of the poor Kim family scheme ways to gain employment at the house of the wealthy Parks family. But once a peculiar secret is uncovered, Parasite explodes outward into violent Hitchcockian horror.
Parasite is as funny as it is frightening, artfully juggling multiple tones to deliver one of the most entertaining films of the decade.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Cats are now in theaters.