#10 – Little Women (2019)
Alas, we have arrived at the much-anticipated Top Ten films of the 2010s. The top five titles have been cemented in place for awhile, but I’ve been all over the place with the rankings of numbers six through 10. I’ve changed a couple even as I’ve written these posts. But the order is unimportant; what matters is that these ten films spoke to me more than any others over the last decade.
Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is the most recent title on this list. I watched it for the first time on Christmas Day, less than a month ago. But to hell with recency bias, I was so touched and inspired by the film I knew right away it would find a place high on this list.
Little Women is the only adaptation on my Top 20, and it works so well because it is such a brilliant one. Gerwig takes a much-beloved classic, one that has been committed to film no less than five times, and makes it feel fresh and essential.
Gerwig has said “as a child, my hero was Jo March, but as an adult, it’s Louisa May Alcott.” Her Little Women makes that distinction thrillingly clear, incorporating writing from Alcott’s other works and details from her life as an author who maintained copyright control of her books. Saoirse Ronan’s Jo essentially merges with Alcott by the end of the film, writing herself a Hollywood ending on paper to ensure a fulfilling professional life.
I read Little Women for the first time a month before this film came out, as preparation, and like most people was unsatisfied with the ending. Was I supposed to cheer Jo’s marriage to Professor Bhaer and shedding of her literary aspirations to run a school? Publishers in the mid-19th century sure thought so, but in forcing that ending on Alcott they undermined the rest of the story, which was refreshingly ahead of its time.
Gerwig solves that narrative hiccup, and does so in the most satisfying way. Her movie is a love story between a woman and the art of writing. A late-film montage of Jo penning her novel is swooningly romantic, as is the loving attention given to the old-fashioned process of binding a book.
This framing is what takes the movie to another level, but I can’t sell short how well Gerwig delivers the traditional highlights of this tale: the Christmas morning trip to feed a needy family; Amy’s devilish burning of Jo’s manuscript; Laurie’s desperate hillside plea for Jo’s hand; Beth’s graceful acceptance of death. All of this is delivered with such warmth and affection, I just wanted to climb inside the frame and live there.
Ronan is predictably wonderful as the icon Jo, but the film’s MVP is Florence Pugh, capping off an extraordinary year (Fighting With My Family, Midsommar) by delivering her best work yet as Amy. She turns this long-vilified character into a complex, nuanced heroine.
Every cast member is spot-on, and all are given memorable scenes. Timothee Chalamet makes a splendid Laurie while Laura Dern brings a world-weariness to Marmee. Chris Cooper is heartbreaking in the small but powerful role of Mr. Laurence, who sees shades of his late daughter in Eliza Scanlen’s Beth.
So early in her career, Greta Gerwig has become a master of mood and tone. Everything in this movie is so lush and lived-in and beautiful, every detail perfectly calibrated to either warm or break your heart.
As I said early on in this countdown, the quickest path a movie has to my heart is through my tear ducts. Little Women is the rare movie that got me teary not just in certain scenes but practically throughout.
Note: I didn’t plan this, but looking back, my Top Ten Movies of the 00s list had Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice in the 10th spot. I’m not generally a big fan of period costume dramas, but I guess one per decade hits all the right notes and manages to land in this position. Guess we’ll have to wait until 2030 to see if the trend continues.