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.

If Beale Street Could Talk – Methodical and Melancholic

In an interview for Little White Lies, film-maker Barry Jenkins said that in his early 20’s an ex-girlfriend gave him Giovanni’s Room (1956) to read after they broke up, as she hoped it would help him to mature as a person. I saw this, and ordered the acclaimed novel of Amazon straight away, not really in an attempt to grow up (though perhaps I need it), but more as an attempt to match my intake of art with one of the great working artists. For those that don’t know, Giovanni’s Room is a novel written by James Baldwin about a man living in Paris, who has an incredibly sensual affair with a barman called Giovanni whilst he is waiting for his girlfriend to return from Spain. The book covers the burning passion of the encounters, and the subsequent guilt afterwards, along with the trials of the heart the characters put upon each-other. It is a remarkable experience to read Giovanni’s Room, and at 150 pages long, it only takes a few sittings to get through it, however the journey is so exquisite that you wish that it was longer. Like any piece of fiction that touches on love, I was entranced by it, holding onto every word, every sentence and every segment of dialogue. It is beautiful literature, that works as a narrator recollecting memories, reaching for emotions over specific events, and Barry Jenkins reproduces this style in If Beale Street Could Talk. The film is an adaptation of one of Baldwin’s later works, that I haven’t read yet (it’s in the post), however you can see Baldwin’s prose breathing through Jenkins’ directing.

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Barry Jenkins’ previous film Moonlight (2016) won ‘best picture’ at the Oscars, so you could say there was a fair deal of pressure on him for his next attempt, especially since many critics have cited that film as a masterpiece. Moonlight is an art-house film, that I enjoyed but didn’t love, because I think that it has more flaws than people care to point out, however I appreciate its importance and its technical mastery. Beale Street is a triumph, and a true adaptation of the feelings that Baldwin evokes in his writing, with my main point being that Jenkins has transformed a novel to a film, and not simply wrote a movie script from a book that he’s a fan of. It’s essentially a love story, about two young people who have grown up in the same neighbourhood together – Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James). They are torn apart when Fonny is falsely accused of rape, and sent to jail, only learning that Tish is pregnant with his child once he is inside. Jenkins weaves the plot around this event, by showing the relationship beforehand and the attempts after by Tish’s family to free Fonny by clearing his name. The film has a rhythmic and lyrical sensibility to it, where scenes flow together smoothly, with the camera moving like a floating poltergeist watching down on their surviving family. It is soft and florid at times, creating a weightless and dreamy look to the flashback scenes of Tish and Fonny, but that doesn’t mean it is not vibrant, or lifeless. The colours are warm and hue-y, with Jenkins pushing in and out from the characters as though we are focusing in on their thoughts. A stunning score by Nicholas Britell is placed over the top of all this, and the music is where the film begins to strangle you, leading you to be lost in the world of the film. The track titled ‘Agape’ is the one that will break you. This melancholia is constantly present in Baldwin’s writing, as is an honest respect for romance, and lust, which Jenkins threads throughout the runtime.

Jenkins has made few films, and people have only been properly aware of him since Moonlight, but he already has his own style and signature moves. The most obvious example of this would be the way that he makes his actors stare directly at the camera, but much has been wrote about that, by far more qualified people than me. What I enjoy about his film-making, is his compassion and his lack of cynicism when it comes to romantic and poetic moments. He treats these moments with a tactile advance, and in Beale Street, you can’t help feel full of love and joy during these scenes. Whether its Tish’s sister telling her to un-bow her head, or a wonderful scene between Fonny and his old friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), where Daniel tells him of the trouble he faced in prison. It’s a great scene not only because of the content of the discussion, but Jenkins positions it perfectly, where the camera slowly drifts from Fonny to Daniel as they speak and the performances the two actors give are completely captivating. The sex scene is endearing, where Jenkins elongates the build up in silence, until Fonny reminds her that she is safe, and that he would never hurt her. Jenkins fills the screen with their bodies, and we can see the sweat pouring off them, as they tentatively come closer together, framing them with no perversion, relying on their acute chemistry. Baldwin’s sex in Giovanni’s Room is much of the same, where it is formulaic to a point of mechanical physical contact, and people are attracted to one another so they do something about it, in an essence of sweetness and raw human nature.

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Another aspect of Baldwin’s writing that Jenkins manages to capture is the story playing out like the narrator is recollecting memories. Tish is guiding us through the events with her voice, remembering details of how she feels physically, staying distant from what is actually happening. This makes the experience emotionally investing, because you are keying in and out of moments as Tish remembers them. Jenkins structures the film very precisely, where the time frame is very loose, cutting back and forth between before Fonny was imprisoned, to after, whilst making it unclear and unimportant how much time has passed. The film has an easy pace at the beginning, then suddenly we are introduced to the crux of the story (Fonny being falsely accused of rape), where the pace becomes quicker and sharper, and then Jenkins mixes the plot engrossment with more abstract notes of cinematography. It is less kinetic and more large brush strokes crossing across several canvases. The end painting is a lush one where the melancholia is obvious, yet it is the methodical way in which Jenkins situates the scenes of the film that make it powerful. It’s an editing feat by Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders, where they allow Jenkins to pragmatically flick back and forth through the story, to envision a climatic message that you’ve been lost in for two hours. More directly, the film is that gorgeous balance between wandering artistry and scientific story-telling, similar to how Fonny feels about his own work – he is an artisan, not an artist.

This isn’t a review of the film, but I haven’t even mentioned how alive the performances are, from all the cast. Many have pointed out Regina King’s matriarchal force, but I would look to the two leads, and Kiki Layne as Tish in particular because she is the real soul of the movie. Basically I was in love with this film as soon as it begun, and in awe, but also sadness by the end. It is ultimately a heartbreaking tale of systematic and societal racism crushing down on an innocent and affectionate relationship, and by staying close to a love story, Jenkins is uncovering more wider issues, something that James Baldwin did all the way through his career. He was a key cultural civil rights activist, something that Jenkins claims not to be, but of course he is inadvertently achieving that anyway through mirroring Baldwin’s behaviour. I don’t know why love and romance affects me so much, but Giovanni’s Room got me, as did If Beale Street Could Talk, and as have countless other tales of amorous sentiment.

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People can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life.” – James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room.

 

GO AND WATCH THIS FILM. IT IS BETTER THAN ANYTHING YOU WOULD OTHERWISE SEE.