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.

Little Women – Subtle Poetry

Something fresh that filmmaker Greta Gerwig brings to the Little Women story, in the new adaptation, is the elements of meta.  Her screenplay weaves in biographical details about Louisa May Alcott, the original author of the classic novel, creating a sense of reverence for the writer that establishes the real-world accomplishments of the source text.  It is a wonderful notion, that doubles the meaning of the work, in both a fictional and historic manner.  Aside from that, Gerwig presents a further meta about writing and directing, whereby the plays of Shakespeare are discussed in the film in terms of work that managed to be both poetic and popular.  Little Women 2019 is the perfect example of a repeatedly told story, that is newly remarkable because of talented authorship, and the reach to artistic achievement in a sellable mainstream affair.

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The undeniable brilliance of the original story is important, and it’s why the book keeps getting adapted, and why it keeps working.  Writer and director Greta Gerwig is faithful to the material, and never really messes with the intricacies of the plots, just plays around with the camera, setting and character.  Saoirse Ronan stars as Jo March in an utterly gorgeous performance, splitting the timeline between childhood and adulthood, hued memories and bleak realities.  Her sisters are all given as much development as she is, in slightly less time: Florence Pugh as Amy, Emma Watson as Meg, and Eliza Scanlen as Beth.  Their mother, played by Laura Dern, is a piece of all of them, in her clothes and the shades of colour in her hair.  In a film full of moving scenes, it would easy to overlook the quieter moments where the sisters are bickering in their family home, talking over the top of each other rhythmically, all written exactly by Gerwig.  This is when you fall completely into the setting and are happy to stay there.  Across the road, in a much larger home, lives Theodore ‘Laurie’ Laurence, again beautifully performed by Timothee Chalamet, who lives with his austere grandfather, played by Chris Cooper.  In contrast to the warmth of the March house, the Laurence manor is far more masculine and impersonal, only brought to life when the girls visit.  One of the stunning extracts of the film is when Laurie is stood on a chair undergoing a teaching lesson from tutor John Brooke (James Norton), when he spots Amy outside the window, saying to John excitedly: “There’s a girl out there.”  Soon all the sisters are in the study, catching the boy’s infatuation, bringing a spark to the spacious mansion.

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It is in this scene when the little details of acting and directing prowess are ever-present.  Jo gallops into the room inspecting the vast collection of books, and Laurie tracks her with his eyes, in love with her of course, Chalamet has it all over his face.  It’s a look we have all given, and Chalamet’s recreation on screen is a constant, building this mesmerising chemistry he has with Ronan.  Their movements seem almost in sync, dancing together, rubbing each other’s hair, embracing tight and long, agonising for Laurie and comforting for Jo.  If you know the story, then you’ll know that at the heart of the romance is this pair, how perfect they seem for one another, yet it cannot work out.  Ronan and Chalamet’s time on screen together encapsulate this, and the inevitable confrontation they have is truly astonishing cinema.  Due to an excellent screenplay that loses all silliness and exaggerated chivalry, the crescendos confession from Laurie and subsequent rejection from Jo is neither melodramatic nor pretentious, instead feels contemporary and honest to life.  Thanks in part to the tactility, and closeness to their friendship, where it is an absolute joy to see Jo punch Laurie on the arm whenever he is being particularly stupid.  Away from the bonds between characters, the film has modern sensibilities because of the style of the players when they are viewed singularly, such as Jo’s hairstyle, or the way Laurie wears his American Civil War era clothes.  Even Saoirse Ronan’s running has a twenty-first-century beat to it, like the way Gerwig runs herself in Frances Ha.  All of that being said, it is in the editing where Gerwig really brings the story to the now, and the choice to have two narratives side by side throughout is an effective one, being bound only by the families it has the impression of separate readings.  It traverses as expected from a New York trained indie filmmaker, whilst keeping tight with the time period, and it is difficult to not be seduced by its charm.

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There is genuine and sincere poetry in this film.  It has ideas on female recognition, love, contentment, childhood, and writing that are fledged out to a base level.  The film is funny and heart-warming, treats its sadder moments with respect and allows each character to act out in meaningful ways.  And it is all packed into a story that is important to so many and will be seen by huge audiences across cinemas all over the world.  Greta Gerwig has achieved poetry in the mainstream, with subtleties and intelligent casting, matched with a cinematographer (Yorick le Saux) who gives energy to each shot and lighting choice – every time it cut to a new location, I was excited to see what my eyes saw next.  I think we are lucky to have a film like this, one with such magic.  I do not believe the film is radical, nor groundbreaking and I’m not about to try and understand the complexities of a feminist message.  Little Women is ultimately about a level of compromise, and you do not have to squint hard to see Gerwig herself sacrificing a perhaps more impactful protest by succumbing to the pressures of producing a film that can be easily adored.  When you have a film this special, that imagines impossibly strong emotive reactions, at least from myself, you get a free pass into greatness, placed into a column titled: what makes life worth living.

 

 

 

 

Why ‘The Prisoner of Azkaban’ is So Remarkable – Part 2/2: Performance & Narrative

First part (direction): https://robsfocuspull.blog/2017/07/10/why-the-prisoner-of-azkaban-is-so-remarkable-part-12-direction/

In the first part I discussed Alfonso Cuaron’s vision and his stamp on the film.  I think ultimately he is the reason the film is so brilliant; however there are other cogs in the wheel.  These other cogs, in a broad sense, are performance and narrative – two things that are arguably the most important in deeming a film a success.  A poor narrative leads a film to be boring and poor performances lead a film to be unwatchable.  Azkaban has both a strong narrative and strong performances, so mix that in with some arty Cuaron-ness and it adds up to a remarkable movie.

J.K Rowling is extremely precious about her work, and fairly so.  Instead of being discarded when the rights were bought for her books, she was brought into the fold.  It’s clear she backed away through most of the films creation but certainly didn’t let them get away with anything that wasn’t a part of her imagination.  The third book in her series, and for me one of the weakest, was published in 1999 two years before the first film even came out.  It’s a strange thing because I view all the potter books very differently.  After re-reading them, I see them more and more as children’s books.  The dialogue is a little scratchy and some of the story telling is painfully basic.  Yet they are still clearly well written and I would say The Order of the Phoenix and The Deathly Hallows are extraordinary pieces of work.  Azkaban however is just a little too infantile at times for me, and obviously is going to be different re-reading it as a 19 year old and being plagued by a love for the movie.  The book almost has the exact same beats as the film, as it’s the last of the shorter novels.  Therefore Rowling’s mind is definitely on top form, despite some dull writing, as the plot is complex and meaningful.

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Narrative

It’s hard to congratulate a particular person on good narrative pacing, as a massive budget film usually has about thirty people behind it.  The writer credited is Steve Kloves, who adapted all the Potters apart from Order.  He is clearly a talented guy, because he manages to slim away any shaky dialogue and keep a quick movement by movement plot in all of the films.  Azkaban is a particular feat because there is so much plot going on.  Right from the start it is very different from the first two films and getting to Hogwarts is a Potter cliché and the first two films set that in stone.  This then leads to the typical Potter narrative, which goes as follows: arrive at Hogwarts in a funky way, listen to some kind of warning that’s going on in the school, go to classes and do wizardry stuff, discover something about the warning, develop a plan, more school wizardry stuff (Quidditch perhaps), then a final climatic battle or problem to overcome (wizards chess and the snake etc).  As the films go on this gets cloudier, especially in Goblet because the Tri-Wizard cup brings in a whole new narrative structure.  Consequently when Azkaban sub verses this, it’s very refreshing.  First off, because getting to Hogwarts is put into jeopardy straight away, because Harry has to get there himself.  It’s then a beautifully choreographed and funny travel set piece with the night bus.  Then even before the obligatory train ride, we have moments of calm outside of Hogwarts, where Harry gets that warning that’s going on this year (Sirius Black).  And even then, on the train, it is grounded to a halt by the baddies and we are introduced to a beloved character (the Dementors & Lupin).  I hope you get what I’m trying to say at this point, which is that Azkaban dismisses and plays with that classical Potter structure.  It toys with the source material, holding on drama and expressing it in a new way.

Moving on towards the ending as it of course has two of them.  The time turner, the most plot device written plot device in history, but so wonderfully done.  I still remember being shocked that there was another 20 minutes left in the film because they have to go back in time.  My small brain couldn’t quite fathom that they were going to answer some of the questions that had been built up.  It is mesmerising, it really is, that we get to relive a plot that has already gripped us.  From a different angle we see the story unfold, and so much more depth is added.  The characters (Harry & Hermione) begin to understand what actually is going on, and just how special Harry is in this world.  Cuaron has already masterfully balanced key scenes, and now the plot pulls it along to an exciting resolution.  The narrative in this film is exciting, and somewhat original, meaning that on a story basis it leaves most other blockbuster films behind.

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Performance

In this narrative, you have diverse characters played by diverse actors.  It’s a constant in Potter films, great Rowling creations played by a host of British actors.  This film in particular boasts an outrageously good cast with Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, Timothy Spall, Emma Thompson and Michael Gamdon coming into the series.  Oldman especially sits at the top of the helm in a challenging role.  He is conflicted, going quickly from bad to good and is very much a mentor to Daniel Radcliffe.  Radcliffe himself has stated how after working with Oldman he decided to pursue acting properly.  Sirius Black is the drive of the film and the emotional draw, so a legend had to be brought in and he did a perfect job of it.  David Thewlis comes in to play probably his now most infamous role, another conflicted character in Professor Lupin – a man shrouded in guilt but full of care and hope.  He plays him in a messy, rugged look; he’s imperfect but pragmatic.  Thewlis makes him likeable due to his soft nature yet a lean to the anti-hero because of his aggression and obvious darker side.  These two characters together have unbelievable chemistry and give a great sense of the friendship before with Harry’s parents.  It’s these top level actors that create such clarity in the story and allow the younger cast to develop their skills.

Like I said, Oldman was deeply influential on Radcliffe and I believe he still is today.  Harry has to be far more mature in this film and Radcliffe handles it well, cautiously not overacting in dramatic moments.  For example he is quiet when Oldman is present, allowing him to lead the scenes.  And when he has to be centre stage, he controls it well, such as when he reveals to Ron & Hermione that Sirius was one of his parent’s friends.  In my mind this is when Radcliffe becomes the proper leading man of the series and appears as a competent actor.  He is given pretty tough material and not once does he seem out of his depth.  His co stars improve on themselves as well, with Rupert Grint nailing his comedic timing and Emma Watson becoming much fiercer.  She is no longer the annoying know-it-all but a force to be reckoned with, and spars well with Radcliffe in the more intense scenes.  What is remarkable about the three’s performances is how real and convincing it is, combining well with the existing world building Cuaron has put into place.  The director got very close to the actors on this film and suggested they really get to know their characters inside out; it shows.

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In conclusion, the acting in the film ties well with the solid narrative.  It is an intriguing plot that requires some tricky portrayals, but all is dealt with well.  With this set of actors comes a fantastic chemistry that is carried throughout the rest of the series.  It is at this point that the franchise takes a turn south to become the breathtaking story that it is.  Daniel Radcliffe has since played some incredible roles and Cuaron has since made some incredible movies.  Their connection in this film makes it remarkable alone.  I think in these two short completely un-researched essays I have touched the surface on the magic of this film, maybe one day I’ll write a book about it, giving me chance to scour all corners of its genius.