Top Ten Films of 2019

I’ve been living in France since September, so I’ve seen both UK and France releases this year, which means that this list is properly dodgy, as there are films that would usually be in next year’s list (like Parasite, which doesn’t come out till February in the UK).  To not lose any in-between films, I’ve kept it to 2019 releases in either France or the United Kingdom.

Firstly, here is 20-11:

20. Under the Silver Lake (David Robert Mitchell)

19. Us (Jordan Peele)

18. The Sisters Brothers (Jacques Audiard)

17. Midsommar (Ari Aster)

16. The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)

15. The Edge (Barney Douglas)

14. Ad Astra (James Gray)

13. Woman at War (Benedikt Erlingsson)

12. The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg)

11. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)

  1. Minding the Gap (Bing Liu)

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A skateboarding documentary, which like all the best documentaries it’s not really about the main subject matter.  The skateboarding acts as an aesthetic and a backdrop to stories on troubled youth, race, and toxic masculinity in places forgotten by the American establishment.  Where the film becomes something special is a gentle reveal of how much the director plays a part in the lives of the people on screen, and his own battles to get where he is now, thinking about the friends that made him.

  1. Parasite (Bong Joon Ho)

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This film is much higher on most people’s lists, and rightfully so, it is just about perfect.  I found love in other films from the year, however this is a masterful piece of work, even aside from the actual content of the movie.  It is a South Korean auteur picture that has managed to be marketed in the US, seen by huge audiences, which in itself is a hopeful thing.  The film is best seen without knowing a single thing about it, all you need to know is that you will be engrossed from start to finish.

  1. High Life (Claire Denis)

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Every year these lists are very personal, and the films that make it are usually ones that inspire me or shift my emotions in some way.  Claire Denis’ English language debut did both of those things, and it made me write THIS.

It is a space sex dungeon existential crisis orgasm and I fucking love it.

  1. A Hidden Life (Terrence Malick)

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The depth of this film is quite outstanding, telling the story of an Austrian farmer who refuses to fight in World War Two.  It asks questions about faith, resistance and protest without recognition, leading to a moving experience, and a mature ending.  Unsurprisingly it is ridiculously well shot, with wonderful Austrian countryside vistas, in a peaceful and mechanical setting.  Valerie Pachner as the left-behind wife Fani is one of my favourite performances of the year.

  1. Burning (Lee Chang – Dong)

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A transcendent work of fiction that works like a great novel does.  For a while it is a sort of love triangle movie, building to a stunning central scene, where the film changes completely to a noir-esque thriller.  You can take multiple interpretations from it, and I always enjoy it when an artform questions itself through technique, and metaphor, not being too concrete.  Steven Yeun’s performance as a massive smarmy bastard is great fun, amongst a film with endless meaning.

  1. The Irishman (Martin Scorsese)

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It is amazing that Scorsese even got this made, and it shows that he is still one of the greats, managing to pull a story this vast together.  Robert De Niro carries the film right through to the bitter end, the crushing phone call scene at the peak of it.  Joe Pesci’s performance is remarkable considering he’s hardly worked for twenty years, finding a character presentation in this film that is higher than being a simple gangster tough guy.   The film winds down to a profoundly sad ending, where Scorsese offers an idea about dying without epiphany – creating all this and it means nothing!

  1. Varda by Agnes (Agnes Varda)

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As a filmmaker and a human being Agnes Varda has given the world so much, and in this documentary, she reminds you of it all step by step.  She is giving lectures on her work, cutting to parts of her filmography, telling stories about her process.  The level of genius she has produced for the image and moving image is hard to comprehend, when you view the variety and sheer amount of work that she has done.  Every legendary artist should do this before they die.

  1. Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)

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Again, perhaps another perfect movie.  Adam Driver and Scarlett Johannson disappear into these roles, moulding themselves around an excellent script that balances both sides of the argument in an honest way.  Johannson’s monologue on her initial meeting with divorce lawyer Laura Dern and Adam Driver singing ‘Being Alive’ are two of my favourite scenes of the year.

Full review HERE.

  1. If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins)

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I’ve never quite a cinema experience like this, for a multitude of reasons, including my mental state and the person I was with.  Barry Jenkins is a sublime filmmaker, and this is a beautiful, heartbreaking adaptation of a James Baldwin novel that captures the essence of Baldwin’s writing.  The soundtrack from Nicholas Brittle is one of my favourites of all time, and I can’t listen to ‘agape’ without breaking down.  When the credits rolled, I was audibly blubbering.

One of the few things that I have written that isn’t actually bad HERE.

  1. Little Women (Greta Gerwig)

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This is a special film.  An entrancing rhythmic symphony of storytelling.  A tactile, physical, romantic, loving experience.  Meta, and intelligent in its nods to the original author of the book.  Gerwig imagines the story in a baseline gorgeous way, then adds subtilties that raise it to interesting high art.  I was falling off the Timothee Chalamet bandwagon slightly, but after this film, I am firmly back on it, some of the things he does with his face! And Saoirse Ronan as well is unbelievably adorable, and relatable in a role that she brings so much life to.  It is one of those films that I did not want to end, and I will be watching it continuously in the foreseeable future.

Wrote something about the film HERE.

The Report & Marriage Story – Film Reviews

The Report

Films on the retrospective history of the Iraq War are coming, and The Report is one that makes sure it picks the right side.  Adam Driver plays real person Daniel Jones, an FBI office dork working for Californian senator Dianna Feinstein (Annette Bening), performing an exhaustive investigation of the CIA’s torture of suspected terrorists in that awful post 9/11 era (still pretty bad now).  The narrative consists of a lot of reading by Jones, cut to the torture happening, then Jones taking the information back to Feinstein where they have a conflict on whether it is pertinent to publish the discoveries.

This is one of Amazon Prime’s attempts at credibility for their original titles, a drama with recognisable actors and a fair enough budget.  Unfortunately, at times the film does have the feel of a TV movie (something that Netflix is moving away from), with a terrible title sequence font and some fluff lines, Driver literally says ‘I’ll start at the beginning,’ early on in the runtime.  The direction is competent enough, and screenwriter by trade Scott Z. Burns does whatever he can to make the paperwork reading and keyboard tapping more intriguing to watch, such as including explicit torture scenes.  These moments are effective in that you are disgusted by what is happening, however they make the film unremarkable and formulaic.  It takes you out of Jones’ headspace, because we can see the torture, but he cannot, leaving the film empty of character.  One of the strengths of the 2015 film Spotlight is that director Tom McCarthy never shows any of the abuse, yet the emotion is still there, because of the scope, and weight of how the journalists cope with hearing the stories.  More ambiguously The Report is most powerful in the proceedings before the torture methods were sanctioned, where phony psychologists are pitching their ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ in a cosy meeting room in Washington.

It advances at a polite pace, and never stagnates, though it is probably twenty minutes too long, and the outcome is clear after it moves past a welcome Tim Blake Nelson cameo as a whistleblower.  At first, the impression is that Driver is playing this in a low-key manner, he’s pragmatic and calm.  Then the film becomes less about him and more about the work, so he eventually shows a great deal of frustration and anger.  This is fine, there does not always have to be a three-dimensional protagonist, it can be about the work, and effectively that’s the film: it’s about the events, not the people surrounding it.  It is placid grey colour tones and a one-sided historical presentation, which is usually a bad thing, but here it stands as worthy because it is the correct side.  Even though the film is forgettable, it is a necessary telling of a story in a mature, intellectual, fact-based way that serves as a catalog to recognise mistakes made by the US government.

Available on Amazon Prime NOW. 

Marriage Story

Noah Baumbach’s second feature with Netflix, and one plagued by Twitter discourse and awards buzz is one of the best films of the year.  It is based on Baumbach’s own divorce with actor Jennifer Jason Leigh, with some of the truth in the story being relevant, and some of it not.  Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson take on the respective roles, as trendy artist couple Charlie and Nicole, separated and going through a divorce.  The film acts as part procedural, showing the effects of the technicalities of the law, whilst also handling the delicate problem of arguments and communication in long term relationships.

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The entire film is not as formal as that description and is ultimately a full-fledged weepy.  There has always been a sweetness to Baumbach’s work, that soft-boy cuteness that you would see in an Éric Rohmer (Ma Nuit Chez Maud, Le Rayon Vert) or a Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks) film.  In the past Baumbach has a sharp New York City wittiness alongside this sweetness, which can leave it slightly too biting, but with Marriage Story he dives headfirst into the heart and soul of the characters.  The film is definitely still witty, and extremely funny, it’s just more endearing and moving than some of his other work because he has embraced the romance.  It’s an upsetting film, with an agonizing climax, full of dramatic moments to go with scenes of levity and honesty.  You are allowed the melodramatic if you are true to reality and have space for the more absurd aspects of life, like one moment where Adam Driver has a gruesome accident with his arm.

The script is incredible, highlighted in a scene where Johannson meets divorce lawyer Laura Dern for the first time, and monologues about the problems of her relationship, seemingly in a stream of consciousness, though all preciously written by Baumbach.  It is important to note that after this scene, about a third of the way through, the film switches almost completely to the perspective of Driver, and this a strength of the movie rather than a weakness.  Baumbach is not pretending to totally understand Johansson’s character, perhaps being true to his own experience, instead he is focusing on Driver’s inability to leave his ego behind and accept his wife’s vacancies about him.  It creates an accurate depiction of a long-term relationship, the barrier that will never be broken down, that you need to let go of trying to have all the answers.

Both main performances are great, and you really forget that Johansson is an avenger and Driver is Darth Vader’s biggest fanboy or whatever.  They are acting!  Johansson in particular really pulls you onto her side, and though Driver gets to shine towards the end, she is perhaps more well-rounded in the film.  Then you have Laura Dern and Ray Liotta as the sleazy lawyers, used as pawns by Baumbach mostly, but are highly entertaining, not to mention Alan Alda stepping in for some much-needed transparency to the American divorce system.  The result is a film of expert moving parts: a tight – meaningful screenplay, poignant direction, and grounded character acting, whilst having some space to explore into less serious details.

Available on Netflix NOW, and some cinemas across the UK (probably other countries too).