As usual, I’ve had considerable difficulty wittling down my favourite films of this year to just ten, so I’m sorry, but it simply has to be eleven. Yes, I know that’s against the “rules”. No, I don’t care. If it bothers you that much, write your own list.
Here are some honourable mentions that just missed out: Capernaum, Us, Rocketman, Booksmart, Yesterday, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, The Farewell, Joker, A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon , Burning, and Motherless Brooklyn (a particularly painful omission, as I consider it criminally underrated by critics and shamefully ignored by audiences).
I should add that I’ve yet to see awards contender Marriage Story, but will be watching it properly (ie in the cinema, not on Netflix) at the beginning of next year. I will also be catching up with Monos next month, which I suspect could also have proved a strong contender. If I am adequately impressed by either film, I might revisit and revise this list (or perhaps simply expand it to thirteen films).
And now, the 2019 countdown commences:
11. The Favourite – Yorgos Lanthimos may be an acquired taste, but I’ve definitely acquired it, and this deliciously dark period drama is no exception. Featuring three superb central performances (Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz), a savage screenplay (by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara), and auteur direction recalling the best of Kubrick, this tale of the court of Queen Anne is packed with refreshingly unsentimental, viciously funny intrigue, deception, and power-play. Yet beneath all the savage wit, cruelty, and eccentricity, there lies a clever meditation on survival instinct and human nature. Historically dubious, maybe, but this is an unsparing, quite brilliant dissection of the human condition.
10. Le Mans 66 – James Mangold’s fact based tale of the famous 1966 Ford vs Ferrari showdown at Le Mans is anchored not only by blistering, tyre-screeching racing sequences, but by two very good central performances from Christian Bale and Matt Damon (as legendary driver and designer Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby respectively). Off the track, the film focuses on their friendship, and becomes less a tale of rival manufacturers, and more a tale of mavericks versus the man, with Damon and Miles butting heads with the corporate suits at Ford. This will likely strike a chord with those who deal with middle management purgatory on a regular basis, and as with all great sports films, an interest in motor racing isn’t necessary to enjoy the thrilling spectacle.
9. Hustlers – Far from being a film about ghastly superficial people ripping off other ghastly superficial people, Lorene Scafaria’s fact-based tale of strippers ripping off Wall Street bigwigs pre and post 2008 financial crash is in fact riveting stuff. Not only does it feature superb performances from Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez (in a kind of Henry Hill/Jimmy the Gent Goodfellas style relationship) but it also has interesting things to say about Wall Street men, the women they mistreat, female empowerment, and America in general. “Money makes me horny” and “America is a strip club” are two key lines deployed at crucial points.
8. Bait – Mark Jenkin’s determinedly lo-fi monochrome masterpiece, shot and hand-processed using an old 16mm film camera, is both a labour of love, and indeed a love letter to life in the small fishing villages of south-west England. With every bit of sound and dialogue redubbed, this reminded me both of classical Italian cinema and the films of Ingmar Bergman (Cornish Bergman being a curious novelty). The plot itself is accessible and relatable, and features a feud between fisherman and tourists. Performances are splendid, and Jenkin’s eye and ear for local sights and sounds are spot-on. An authentic, beautiful, darkly funny, occasionally shocking, quietly devastating gem.
7. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker – At the moment, I feel slightly torn between two points of view on this film (see my spoiler-free review here for more details). For now however, I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt as a spectacular and satisfying, albeit safe conclusion to the Star Wars saga. As a lifelong fan, I can’t really not give this a place on the list, but I’m placing it lower than Star Wars films usually end up in the top ten, with the understanding that it could rise (no pun intended) on subsequent viewings. Whatever conclusions I eventually arrive at, there is loads to enjoy here, and I suspect children viewing it now will end up thinking of it in the same way my generation views Return of the Jedi.
6. Knives Out – Rian Johnson’s superbly crafted old-school whodunit is first and foremost a cracking entertainment. It is also, if you wish to look, a clever (non-preachy) commentary on contemporary America’s absurdly polarised politics, casual racism, and hypocrisy in attitudes to immigrants. Or you can just ignore all that, and enjoy Daniel Craig’s Deep South Poirot/Columbo fusion, as his private investigator Benoit Blanc uncovers foul play in a house full of murder suspects, when a crime novelist supposedly commits suicide. Naturally the all-star cast are terrific, especially Chris Evans and upcoming Bond girl Ana de Armas.
5. The Irishman – Martin Scorsese’s long-gestating, epic, three and a half hour adaptation of Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses is his best film in many years. Working with an astonishing cast that includes Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino, and aided by ILM digital de-aging technology, the film covers several decades seamlessly showing the characters in various different eras. This riveting tale of how Teamster driver Frank Sheeran (De Niro), winds up befriending and ultimately assassinating union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) at the behest of the mob, is familiar Scorsese turf. However, this is a melancholy, elegiac, thoughtful piece of work; less fast and self-consciously stylish than Mean Streets or Goodfellas, and more sombre and reflective. This is particularly true in the final stretches, whereby Sheeran faces up to just what a life of crime has cost him in terms of family relationships, mentally, and spiritually.
4. The Kindergarten Teacher – Maggie Gyllenhaal’s stunning central performance anchors writer/director Sara Colangelo’s superb remake of the Israeli original. A slow-burn, psychological drama that gets under the skin in a quite remarkable way, this tale of a kindergarten teacher’s increasingly unhealthy obsession with a poet child prodigy could have gone a number of ways (including the psycho-thriller route) but instead Colangelo opts for something more thought provoking, exploring the dangers of living vicariously, and the way an indifferent world can crush genuine artistic talent.
3. Avengers: Endgame – Although this isn’t the end of Marvel’s mega-franchise, this film certainly felt as though the curtain came down on the present iteration. At any rate, this Russo Brothers helmed comic book epic featuring Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, et al proved an astonishing smackdown with uber-villain Thanos. Yes, the plot is essentially fan service, but done so very well, to such crowd-pleasing effect, that it barely matters. Almost every one of the key heroes gets their moment to shine, with emotionally resonant character arcs, and the visual effects in that final battle are truly staggering. Yet for me, the most powerful moments of the film are in the opening movement, amid the eerily apocalyptic, post “snap” gloom. It has been nonsensically suggested by a certain famous film director that Marvel movies are not cinema. Will all due respect to said film director, whose work I admire enormously, this film categorically proves that assertion is nonsense.
2. Midsommar – Ari Aster’s masterful horror film is so much more than just pagan panic and gruesome shocks. By using sunlight and opulent colour rather than darkness and shadows, the film is cleverly counter intuitive in its slow-burn of building dread. Yet when the horrors arrive, they are, above all, an outward reflection of what is happening inwardly to Florence Pugh’s tormented protagonist. The breakdown of her relationship with her selfish boyfriend contains many interesting facets, considering relationships themselves are very much a religion of the modern age. Perhaps my offhand reference to this as The Wicker Man: He’s Just Not That Into You isn’t just a silly joke after all. Either way, this is a stunningly unsettling piece of work.
1. Little Women – Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the much beloved classic tinkers with timelines to brilliant effect, adding freshness, contrast, and irony to the point that it becomes the definitive screen version. A superb central performance from Saoirse Ronan as Jo is complimented by an equally superb cast, including a scene stealing Meryl Streep, and the brilliant Florence Pugh. The latter gives new depth to Amy; an oft-underserved character in previous adaptations (although I still haven’t forgiven her for burning Jo’s manuscript). Gorgeous cinematography recalls the look of Barry Lyndon, and Alexandre Desplat’s beautiful score is the icing on this warm, generous, joy of a film. Oscars must be forthcoming, surely?
That’s it for 2019. Among the bigger films out next year, we’ve got more superhero shenanigans with Wonder Woman 1984 and Black Widow, immersive war drama from Sam Mendes with 1917, Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, a long awaited Top Gun sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, the new James Bond film No Time To Die, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, and at the back end of the year, Steven Spielberg’s new version of West Side Story, and Denis Villeneuve’s long awaited take on Dune. I’m very excited (and nervous) to see how the latter turns out. Hopefully there will also be lots of smaller films, sleeper hits, and independent gems that stand out amid the sea of sequels, reboots, and remakes.